Sunday, January 07, 2001

Nichting not ready for showers

Well-traveled pitcher gets another chance with Reds

By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Baseball has severely tested Chris Nichting. The number of organizations he has joined (six) and operations he has undergone (five) dwarf the number of seasons he has spent in the major leagues (two). Yet Nichting, 34, has continued to hurl himself enthusiastically into each year.

        “I'll keep running the race until I see the finish line,” said the Elder High School graduate and former Northwestern University star. “I'll let someone else tell me I can't do it anymore.”

        Nichting's journey as a baseball vagabond has brought him close to home. Courted by Reds farm director Tim Naehring, his friend and former Greater Catholic League foe, Nichting signed with Cincinnati as a six-year minor-league free agent. The Reds invited the right-hander to spring training as one of 16 non-roster players.

        “In the back of my mind, I wondered why they never called (earlier),” Nichting said. “Being older, I'm glad for it. I guess you always have an inkling to want to play for a local team.”

        Nichting, who was labeled a starter when Los Angeles chose him in the third round of the 1987 draft but has developed into a closer, obviously is a long shot to make the Reds. Yet it's equally apparent he has done something right to stay in the game this long.

        Nichting's durability and resilience obscure his career statistics (56-65, 31 saves 4.47 ERA in the minors; no record with a 7.02 ERA in 20 major-league appearances for Texas in 1995 and Cleveland last year). His fastball still exceeds 90 mph, despite the shoulder problems that sidelined him in 1990-91. Cleveland rewarded him with a big-league promotion in September after he converted a franchise-record 26 of 27 save chances with Triple-A Buffalo.

        “I've got to go in believing that if I don't have a job, I'll take a job,” Nichting said. “This far along, that has to be my attitude.”

        A VOTE FOR SULLY: Admitting his sentiments will surprise nobody, closer Danny Graves urged the Reds to keep right-hander Scott Sullivan, who usually preserves the leads he inherits.

        “I don't see how they can trade him,” said Graves, referring to speculation about Sullivan that persists despite general manager Jim Bowden's insistence he doesn't want to trade the setup man. “I don't understand how we can win without Sully. He's a huge part of our team.”

        If the Reds trade Sullivan, who's eligible for a substantial raise through arbitration, they could try to replace him with rookie John Riedling or the resurgent Mark Wohlers. But Cincinnati would help ensure its ullpen depth with Sullivan, the second pitcher in history to lead the majors in relief innings for three consecutive seasons.

        “Not to take anything away from Wohlers or Riedling, but Sully has made things a lot easier for me the past three years,” said Graves, who has converted 65 of 79 save opportunities in that span. OMINOUS OPTION: The Reds need not worry about outfield prospect Adam Dunn making a sudden career switch. “He's a baseball player now,” Dunn's agent, Brian Peters, said this week.

        But Dunn's athletic skill and 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame hasn't stopped tempting college football programs. Those same physical gifts prompted the Reds to wrest him two years ago from the University of Texas, where he was a quarterback. Peters said talent evaluators believe Dunn could thrive in the NFL as a tight end.

        “He has had numerous schools contact him about potentially coming back to football,” said Peters, naming Kentucky, Notre Dame, Southern Methodist and Texas Tech.

        Dunn is likely headed for Double-A Chattanooga.

        Besides hitting .281 with 16 homers and 79 RBI for Single-A Dayton last season, Dunn drew 100 walks and stole 24 bases.


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