Juan Nieves more than a right-hand man with Red Sox
BY DARYL VAN SCHOUWEN Staff Reporter
BOSTON — Juan Nieves was the Boston Red Sox’ gain and the White Sox’ loss. The Atlanta Braves did OK for themselves, too, by scooping up hitting coach Greg Walker when Walker wasn’t really wanted on the White Sox coaching staff two years ago.
The upshot? The Sox are still looking for the right answer after firing Walker’s replacement, Jeff Manto, at the end of a 99-loss season. And in Nieves, the Red Sox’ first-year pitching coach, few really knew what the White Sox had while he was Don Cooper’s right-hand man the previous five seasons.
Players win championships, but good coaches show them the way. All Nieves did for the Red Sox was play a significant role in their cellar-to-World Series run in his first year, and Cooper’s the least bit surprised. He recommended Nieves to Red Sox manager John Farrell, a former pitching coach himself.
‘‘He’s an intelligent guy, but more importantly, his genuineness as a person was the one thing that would allow him to connect with players,’’ Farrell said. ‘‘And that has proven to be the case. The sincerity he comes to work with every day, guys feel that. And they trust in his message.’’
The message was instilled in him from Cooper, who expanded Nieves’ responsibilities over time.
‘‘I’ll tell you one thing, working with Don was a pleasure because he gave me carte blanche,’’ Nieves said. ‘‘I was able to work, and he gave me all the responsibility. It was an open book. We talked about many things according to experience and what to do in situations. Everything from A to Z — delivery, game planning, how to attack hitters. I’m very grateful for all the experiences.’’
While Nieves had the coaching year of his life, Cooper was having perhaps his worst. The Sox lost 99 games, although the pitching staff wasn’t much to blame. Cooper also was hospitalized twice for diverticulitis, a painful digestive disease for which he had elective surgery on Wednesday.
‘‘It was a shame,’’ Nieves said of the White Sox’ woeful year.
Meanwhile, Nieves has been having the year of his life.
‘‘I’m very, very happy for him, but I have to be honest, I’m jealous that he’s in the playoffs and I’m not,’’ Cooper said Thursday from a Nashville hospital. ‘‘You want to go to the playoffs, and obviously we didn’t go there, and now I see one of my best friends hanging out there. I’m pulling for him, but there’s a pang of jealousy.’’
With a pitching staff he inherited that endured a last-place showing in 2012, Nieves has a chance to be fitted for World Series ring like the one Cooper won with the White Sox in 2005.
‘‘It’s everything I expected and more,’’ Nieves said of his first year in charge. ‘‘These guys have seen death in both eyes in the last year and a half. It could not get any worse.’’
It could not have been any better for Nieves watching Jon Lester pitch 72/3 scoreless innings in Game 1 on Wednesday. It made Nieves and Lester both reflect back to when Lester and other Red Sox pitchers reported early to spring training.
‘‘Juan busted his butt since Day 1 to learn everything to fit in with us, and it’s gone smoothly since,’’ Lester said. ‘‘It’s been a seamless transition.’’
For Cooper, there was little doubt. He knew Nieves would have quality to work with.
‘‘Their guys aren’t chopped liver,’’ he said.
And he knew Nieves would push the right buttons.
‘‘When John Farrell called me about him, I said, ‘He’s ready to go.’ When they came to Chicago, I said to him, ‘How’s my boy working out?’ and he said, ‘You did good.’ ’’