Now into his seventh season with the Kitchener Panthers, outfielder Tanner Nivins continues to showcase he is among the best offensive producers in the IBL.
Yes, the veteran struggled out of the gate, going one-for-seven to start his 2019 campaign and has been in and out of the lineup. But a slight modification at the plate has gotten him back into the groove of things.
“I think I was just trying to do too much, and swing too hard,” Nivins said of his slow start, “Sometimes, you just got to take it back to the basics. I was talking to a couple coaches, and guys watching me and they said I was just gripping the bat a little too tight, and trying to do too much.”
And he showcased his improvement in a big way over a weekend home stand that finished with a 19-10 win Sunday afternoon against the London Majors.
Nivins, for the second afternoon in a row, took the second pitch he saw over the fence for a first inning lead-off home run. It was one of two homers on the Sunday for the centre fielder, who went three-for-five overall and drove in four RBI.
It was in London back on May 23 that Nivins had his first big breakout of 2019, where he went three-for-five with a home run and five RBI in a 22-5 Panthers victory.
Nivins is now up to a .429 batting average, four home runs and 11 RBI, all ranking in the top five in the IBL.
When asked about his outfielder, Panthers Manager Luke Baker recalled the 2016 campaign that saw Nivins hit in the lead off spot, and lead the IBL in home runs (17), runs (50) and hits (67).
The hits put Nivins into an elite class, coming one shy of the franchise --- and Intercounty Baseball League --- record of 68 in a single 36-game season.
Who set that? Baker himself in his MVP year in 2002 with the Panthers.
The skip says he was impressed when he came back in 2016, and still is now, using adjectives such as “devastating,” “unconscious” and “unstoppable” in describing his veteran when he is on his game.
“He’s just an unreal hitter. He’s got the wheels too, so it’s fantastic that way,” Baker said, “He’s versatile in the sense he can bat in the one or the three spot, and he’s deadly.”
“I like lead off for sure,” Nivins adds, “I’m not the typical lead off guy for sure, with my approach, but I like lead off because pitchers are forced to pitch to me, especially with the guys behind me, we’ve got a lot of great hitters so they don’t want to walk me. So, I’m getting a lot of good pitches to hit and that’s a big part of my success right now.”
And if you’re not impressed by his plate presence, you can certainly appreciate his defensive prowess, highlighted by a Kevin Pillar-esque diving catch Sunday to finish off the Majors in the eighth inning.
“I love playing defense, it’s so much fun to go out and track baseballs and anytime you can pick up your pitcher, it’s a good feeling,” Nivins said about the pride he takes as a defender, “These guys battle so hard, so if we can make a nice play out there, save a couple runs for them, that’s always a lot of fun so I enjoy it.”
But it’s not just him providing the consistency for the Panthers --- outfielder Zarley Cina is batting .531 so far, second in the IBL --- as they have turned into an offensive team force early on.
Just use Sunday’s 19-run output for example.
The Panthers hit six home runs, three of them coming in what was part of a nine-run fifth inning that blew the game wide open.
Brian Burton and Mike Gordner each had two run shots, while Keegan Marsden crushed an offering over the right field fence for a three-run home run. Colin Gordner hit a lead off home run in the eighth, after his previous three times at the plate ended with strikeouts.
“Windy day, but a lot of them were legitimate (home runs),” Baker said.
From a small ball perspective, everyone got in on the hit parade. Only Stephen Whalen, who came into the game as a pinch runner, failed to get a hit. He was hit by a pitch in his only at bat.
Keep in mind, all this came after London scored three times in the first inning and added another in the second to climb to a 4-1 lead.
But Panthers starter Jasvir Rakkar recovered after the slow start, going six innings and shutout the Majors after those four runs against. He finished with eight strikeouts, walked only one batter, all while surrendering five hits.
In fact, he saw the minimum number of batters in the final four innings he pitched to register his first win of the year.
Even with all this success and a 7-1 start to the year, there’s an indication the best is yet to come.
“We called up so many junior guys, and so many different guys that have played the role and we’ve had to juggle things around,” Baker said, mentioning some of the defensive shifts his veterans have had to adjust to.
“They’re playing good ball and if anything, it’s just the chemistry. The guys are just really getting along, having a lot of fun being at the yard and the play is starting to really show.”
The next step is bringing in their import players and making sure the chemistry continues at the same time. Those players, who haven’t been named, could come up as early as this week.
And admittedly, there’s some sharpening up to do in the field with 15 errors --- fourth most in the league --- before the season gets into July.
“Right now, with the run support like that, we can get away with it,” Baker said, “But not something we want to get used to.”
But overall, Baker adds things are going well and want to keep things going.
They’ll get to keep things going Thursday night, when the rival Barrie Baycats come to town for a 7:30 p.m. first pitch at Jack Couch Park.