Just One Step Away : Phil Nevin Is Doing Well at Triple-A Tucson; His Move Up to Houston Seems Right on Schedule

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Runner on second, two outs, bottom of the ninth, tie game. These are the pressure situations Phil Nevin lives for, the ones he usually thrives on.

His first professional season has been no different for the former El Dorado High School and Cal State Fullerton standout. Nevin is batting .309 with runners in scoring position for the triple-A Tucson Toros--that's 62 points higher than his .247 average--and ranks third on the team with 49 RBIs.

"I can't believe the amount of clutch hits he has," Tucson Manager Rick Sweet said. "He really bears down in those situations."

But Nevin up with the bases empty in a 9-1 blowout bears little resemblance to Nevin up with the bases loaded in a tie game.

And this is a concern for the Houston Astros, who invested $700,000 in Nevin after making him their No. 1 pick of the 1992 draft.

"He seems to turn it up a notch with men on base, which is great, but he's probably equally lax when it's 5-2 in the eighth and no one on," said Fred Nelson, Houston's director of minor league operations. "Look at it mathematically. In 250 at-bats, say half were non-quality. If 50 or 75 of those were quality, where would he be hitting? How many RBIs would he have?

"That's something he's aware of. In my opinion, he's striving to improve his quality at-bats, while dealing with the adjustment of playing every day with the heat, travel, bumps and bruises. He has to try to take the same approach at the plate every night."

That's not easy, as Nevin has learned.

The heat is brutal in Tucson, usually 100-105 degrees at game time. The travel, while not as demanding as last summer's 30-game, 18-city, pre-Olympic tour with Team USA, is grueling. The Toros have played 20 of their last 26 games on the road.

And Nevin, who earned Most Outstanding Player honor at the 1992 College World Series while leading Fullerton to the championship game, has had his share of injuries--he was hit by pitches on the wrist and elbow this season and had to sit out about a week.

But this is all part of his education, the star pupil's adjustment from college to pro baseball.

"I'm getting used to getting up every day for a game," said Nevin, 1992 College Player of the Year and Golden Spikes Award winner. "There are no days off, and you get worn down. You have to know the right times to rest, things like that.

"I also have to learn there's more than just driving in runs. I should be hitting .280, but I don't have the same concentration level when I'm leading off an inning or when there's two out and no one on."

This is about the only complaint folks in the Houston organization seem to have with Nevin, though. Front-office executives, coaches and teammates have been impressed with the way this 22-year-old third baseman has performed under the microscope that all No. 1 draft picks play under.

Outside of a six-RBI game against Portland May 26, Nevin hasn't done anything extraordinary. He has 17 two-hit games, two three-hit games and has just four home runs after hitting .402 with 22 homers and 86 RBIs at Fullerton last season.

But his solid play at third base, the potential he has shown in left field, his work habits, his performance in the clutch, and the air of confidence with which he plays the game, have brought many in the organization to the same conclusion: Nevin is a can't-miss prospect.

"I have no doubts he's going to be in the major leagues," Sweet said. "In a way he's a throwback, a gamer type. Maybe not a Pete Rose, but he plays every game to win. When he doesn't win, he's not a happy person.

"He plays the game just right. He's enthusiastic and you don't want to change that. He's an emotional kid with a fiery temperament--he'll throw a helmet or bat now and then--but it goes away quickly. He'll mellow with time."

And with experience. Nevin almost threw more than a helmet or bat when an abusive fan went a little too far in Tucson in early June.

"I don't mind people calling me a bum, but when there's 100 people left in the stands in the late innings of a blowout and this guy is in the front row, yelling and screaming about my family, my daughter, things like that, I kind of lost it," Nevin said.

"I started going over the railing but one of the players pulled me back. It's probably something I shouldn't have done, but it embarrassed the guy and shut him up. They eventually arrested him."

It wasn't a pretty scene for Nevin, who is always in the spotlight because of the celebrity status, big bonus and lofty expectations that go with being a No. 1 pick. But he learned from it.

"It's a lot worse in the big leagues when you go to places like New York," Nevin said. "Even when I traveled with the Astros last September, people were yelling things at me. You hear them, but you can't acknowledge them. The worst thing you can do is turn around and look at them."

Older teammates such as Jim Lindeman, Tucson's 31-year-old first baseman, have been a settling influence on Nevin. Lindeman, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies, has become something of a big brother or guidance counselor to Nevin.

"He's pretty intense, just like I was when I was younger," Lindeman said. "It took me a long time to learn not to take every (bad) at-bat to heart, but I don't think Phil will have a problem doing that.

"Phil has all the tools and a great attitude. He doesn't worry too much about stats or what other people think of him. He just needs to learn to concentrate and take what pitchers give him. He's only 22 and in triple-A. That's a big jump, and not many can make it."

Some thought Nevin would make the jump from college right to the big leagues. Nevin had an impressive spring training with the Astros, batting about .350 with good power, and nearly hit his way onto the opening-day roster.

But with Ken Caminiti established at third base, Nevin would have spent most of the time on the bench, which would have impeded his progress.

"Phil stacked up real well, but it wouldn't have been an intelligent decision (to start him in the major leagues)," Nelson said. "But it was tremendous for him not only to compete at that level but for our staff to see how he could compete, what made him tick."

Caminiti, in the first year of a three-year contract, appears to have third locked up, but Houston's left-handed-hitting outfield of Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley and Eric Anthony leaves the Astros vulnerable against left-handed pitchers.

In an effort to better position Nevin for a major league job and get some right-handed power in the outfield, the Astros have instructed Sweet to play Nevin in left field, where he has about 10 starts this season. Nevin had never played outfield in his life.

"It's a lot tougher than people think," Nevin said. "It's not a reaction position like the infield. You have to wait and get the proper read on the ball, then get to it. I take balls out there during batting practice every day, and I feel like I'm doing fine there."

Nevin hasn't made any errors in the outfield, and Sweet believes he has enough natural ability to play the position in the major leagues.

"He has played outfield better than we've anticipated," Nelson said. "To expect Phil to go to left field, take balls slicing away from him in the corner, figure out at the warning track whether it's time to challenge the wall, those things aren't easy. But he's done quite well. If we felt that was his ticket to the majors, a crash course would be all he'd need."

Nevin, like all his minor league brethren, has no idea when that ticket will come. But he's confident it will come, and when it does, he wants it to be a one-way ride.

"I'll be there some day--it's just a matter of time," Nevin said. "I'd like to be there now, of course, but I have to be patient. And I don't want to bounce back and forth, go up for 10 days, down for 10. I'd like to get there and stay there."

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