ATLANTA - Baseball's proverbial window of opportunity can sometimes feel like it exists on a proverbial car that is moving at a proverbial 70 mph down the proverbial interstate of life. In Laynce Nix' case, the window flashed by in 2004, when a spot opened up in the outfield and the Rangers decided to give the 23-year-old slugger a chance. In the first 60 games of that season, he made an impressive leap onboard, hitting .292 with a .583 slugging percentage and nine home runs for a Texas team that found itself in the thick of the AL West race after four straight losing seasons.
But just when it felt he was buckled in for the long haul, Nix found himself lying on the ground at the Ballpark at Arlington, the undisputed loser of a full-speed collision with the centerfield wall. The trajectory of his career changed that day, not just because of the month he spent on the disabled list, but also because he batted much of the next year with his front half missing, a fact discovered only after medical tests revealed that a tendon in his right shoulder was no longer connected to his arm.
By then, Nix was hitting .240 with diminished power and a .267 on-base percentage, leading to an odyssey that took him from the operating room to four other teams, an odyssey that he hopes is coming to an end thanks to games like the one he produced Thursday.
With two out in the sixth inning and the Phillies holding a 1-0 lead at Turner Field, Nix squared up a 2-1 slider from Randall Delgado and sent it sailing into the seats in centerfield. It was his second hit of the day, his second home run of the season, and the latest indication that Ruben Amaro Jr. and his scouts knew what they were doing when they green-lighted a 2-year, $2.5 million contract for the 31-year-old this offseason.
The numbers said that Nix was more of what the Phillies already had: a strikeout-prone, low-OBP power hitter on the wrong side of his prime. In 2009, his first full major league season after the surgery, he hit just .239 with a .291 OBP and struck out 81 times in 309 at-bats. His career numbers - .246 average, .291 OBP, .433 slugging percentage - were hardly the marks of a man who could help a team survive 2 or more months without the lefty power of Ryan Howard in the lineup.
But the Phillies liked what they saw. They liked the 35 home runs and 84 extra-base hits in 723 at-bats against righthanded pitching he produced from 2009-11. They liked his outfield defense, and the fact that he had spent a little time at first base. And they liked the upside.
"A lot of people just look [at the numbers] and say, he had a shoulder injury and he doesn't produce," Nix said.
For the last month, nobody has been able to make that claim. After his 2-for-3 showing in the Phillies' 4-0 win over the Braves on Thursday, Nix was hitting .342 with eight extra-base hits and five walks in 38 at-bats. On a team whose lack of patience has tested that of its manager and fans, he ranks second among regulars in pitches seen (3.93 per plate appearances) and walks (12.5 percent of plate appearances).
"Nix is a good player," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's strong. He's shown you how hard he can hit the ball . . . I think our team is good for him. And I think he's good for us."
During the first 2 weeks of the season, Manuel used his lineup card like a Rubik's cube, each day trying a new combination in the hope that something might stick. Thanks to the contributions of Nix and fellow bottom-dollar acquisitions Ty Wigginton and Juan Pierre, the daily tinkering appears to have slowed. On Thursday, the Phillies won for the sixth time in nine games, a stretch that has seen Nix start eight times and Wigginton start seven, the two players combining to score or drive in 18 of the team's 49 runs. To put that in perspective, the Phillies scored just 28 runs total in their first nine games.
Nix, who entered the season having started six games at first base, played the position for the eighth time this season Thursday.
"Both of those guys, as the season progresses, especially in our ballpark, I think you'll see their strength show up," Manuel said. "If we can get them sharp and hitting good like they are starting to, I think their power will really show up in our yard."
Nix is well aware that the window can close in a hurry. One month into a season is no time to make plans. But for the first time in 2012, the Phillies have some reason to hold their heads high when the starting lineup is introduced. Unlike his first stint in the majors, Nix is hoping that he is there to stay.