KITCHENER – A little over a year ago, he was part of U.S. college baseball’s Cinderella story. This summer, he’s been something of wish come true for the Kitchener Panthers.
Since joining the Intercounty Baseball League Squad in mid-June, 22-year-old Tanner Nivins has been knocking the ball all over the park, playing in front of hometown crowds for the first time in years.
"He’s hitting the heck out of the ball right now. He’s been a good find,” said skipper Brian Bishop.
That’s an understatement. As of Friday, the Kitchener-raised outfielder was hitting .500, stroking 16 hits, 14 RBI and four home runs in 32 at-bats, and has become an integral part of the fourth-place Panthers’ lineup.
Nivins came home to Kitchener this summer after four years at Stony Brook University, where he was on a baseball scholarship. His plan was to take a break from the game – then Panthers general manager Scott Ballantyne came calling.
“I came home and planned on taking the summer off. But they made me an offer and I couldn’t say no. I just couldn’t stay away from the game. I got that fire back after a few weeks off,” he said.
The outfielder says he’s learning the mental side of the game from Panthers veterans like Jeff Pietrazsko, and benefitting from hitting ahead of him in the lineup – a position that means pitchers are more likely to feed him a steady diet of fastballs.
Skipper Bishop says he’s not surprised Nivins is off to such a hot start – he has a strong, compact swing and has the experience of playing in the two of the best American collegiate summer leagues, Cape Cod and Northwest.
“If he can play there, you know he can play,” Bishop said.
Nivins certainly looks at home with the Panthers.
“It’s a good, relaxing environment, you’re not stressed and you don’t have a lot of pressure on you. That’s usually when you play your best, when you’re not stressed and just let your instincts take over,” he said.
The former Ontario Terriers product, who learned the game in the Kitchener Minor Baseball Association ranks, is thrilled to be playing for a team he watched as a kid.
“I grew up playing here and watching the Panthers. You can really appreciate what it means to play for them because you see the little kids watching,” he said.
Last June, Nivins was a key part of one of the most captivating stories in U.S. college baseball. Stony Brook, his small Long Island college, stunned the giants of NCAA baseball by going all the way to the College World Series in Omaha.
It was an unprecedented run for a little-known school that caught the attention of sporting press heavyweights, from the New York Times to Sports Illustrated.
Stony Brook went 52-13 in its historic season to get to Omaha, including an upset of powerhouse Louisiana State University in front of 10,600 fans. Nivins batted .306 with 63 hits to help the Seawolves get there.
“It still doesn’t seem real sometimes,” he said. “I keep trying to explain to guys what that experience was like.”
Stony Brook’s improbable season forced a lot of people to take notice, including Cambridge’s Scott Thorman, the former major leaguer who now plays first base for the Panthers’ rival Brantford Red Sox.
Even he wanted to talk about it, when the pair met at first base during a game recently.
“I got on base and he brought it up, telling me he was following me. That was pretty cool,” Nivins said.
For the first time since leaving for the U.S., Nivins’ friends and family can watch him play without making the 10-hour drive to Long Island. He’s boosted by their presence in the stands, and the welcome his new teammates have laid out for him.
“They took me in and made me feel at home right away. It’s such a great environment to play in,” he said.
The look ahead
The Guelph Royals (6-15) host the Panthers Saturday at 7:30 p.m at David E. Hastings Stadium. Mike McGillivray, 1-4, will pitch for Kitchener in the game, which will be rebroadcast on Rogers TV cable 20 the following day at 2 p.m.
Newcomer Shaun Slemko will make his first start of the season for the Panthers on Sunday, when Kitchener has a rematch with Guelph at Jack Couch Park at 7 p.m. That game will be broadcast live on Rogers TV cable 20.
Slemko, a contact pitcher picked up after his release from Barrie last month, has been used out of the bullpen so far for the Panthers, compiling a 3.52 ERA in 7.2 innings.