Colorado Rockies pitcher Juan Nicasio is baseball’s feel-good story. And spring training doesn’t even start for four weeks.
Nicasio suffered a fractured C1 vertebra Aug. 5 when struck on the right side of his head by a line drive off the bat of the Washington Nationals’ Ian Desmond. Nicasio was examined over the past weekend by the Rockies’ medical staff when he was in Denver for Fanfest, and he was given clearance to throw batting practice this week without a screen to protect him.
Just how good a recovery Nicasio has made is apparent, as the Rockies are counting on the 25-year-old right-hander to be a member of their starting rotation. Quite a turn of events in less than six months.
As Nicasio lay on the mound at Coors Field, the C1 vertebra fractured from the impact when he was knocked backward and hit his head on the pitching rubber, the initial reaction was the hope he would live and avoid paralysis. Nobody, except Nicasio, even thought about his future on the mound.
When he made his first appearance at Coors Field after the injury, wearing a halo and moving carefully, he proclaimed he would be back on the mound by spring training and in the rotation for the start of the 2012 season.
"My mind and my heart told me I would be fine," he said. "I had no doubts."
The Rockies, whose first spring training workout is Feb. 20 in Scottsdale, Ariz., are trying to minimize the hype. But they know everything Nicasio does will be bigger than life. Trainer Keith Dugger said he has plenty of research for pitchers being hit in the head by line drives, but he did not know of any other to have suffered a fractured vertebra.
"I am not looking at any type of numbers, just the idea that he could be back on the mound," Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said. "There are no expectations. There is a lot of excitement to see him feeling so good and to feel he could be a part of what we are trying to accomplish in 2012."
Nicasio, Jhoulys Chacin and Jason Hammels are the only three names listed under the starting rotation on the Rockies’ projected Opening Day roster. There are at least seven candidates for the two other spots, including 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, signed to a minor-league contract last week.
A year ago, Nicasio was not projected to be in the big leagues during the 2011 season. He was coming off a strong season at high Single-A Modesto and was assigned to Double-A Tulsa. He opened the year going 5-1 with a 2.22 ERA and on May 28 got the call to make his big-league debut on national television against the eventual world-champion St. Louis Cardinals. He allowed an unearned run in seven innings of a 15-4 victory.
Stepping into a regular rotation role, there was some inconsistency (4-4, 4.14, 13 starts). What the Rockies focused on was the fact he struck out 58 while walking only 18 in 71-2/3 innings.
He is ready to build off that in 2012, and his teammates are impressed.
"I’ve got so much respect for that guy," shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. "When he came up, you liked his mound presence. You could see a toughness, but this kind of tough? I don’t know if I could do what he is doing. I mean, I remember running in (from the shortstop position) after he went down and seeing him lying there. . . ."
Nicasio remembers the moment, too. Well, sort of.
He said the moments before he hit the ground are a blank, but he remembers lying on the mound, talking to Dugger. He remembers worrying that he had no power in his body.
That, however, is all just a memory. The only remnants of the moment are the video and the scar left over from the two-inch metal rod he has inserted in his neck.
Now he is looking forward, much to the surprise of friends and foes.
"A lot of people in the Dominican told me, ‘You’re going to be scared when you go to the mound,’ "he said.
But he isn’t.
People talk about him being lucky to be headed back to the mound. Nicasio said he looks at it that he was unlucky that he was hit by the line drive.
"It’s not something that happens every day," he said. "It happened to me once in six years. It’s not like it is something that happens every day."
So during his recent batting practice sessions behind a screen, what’s going through his mind?
"I want to throw strikes," he said. "I want to compete."
"And I think of God. I thank God. I feel good. I am ready to go."