The outings occurred in the Dominican Republic, three February tuneups for spring training by Rockies pitcher Juan Nicasio. In an ordinary offseason, they would have attracted minimal attention rather than organizational scrutiny.
This was anything but an ordinary offseason for Nicasio, who has recovered from a broken neck sustained Aug. 5. Some 6 ½ months after that frightful injury, Nicasio headed to spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., in all-systems-go mode.
“His mentality, he’s like nothing happened before,” said Edison Lora, the Rockies’ pitching coach with their Rookie-level Dominican Summer League team and Nicasio’s first professional coach after the Rockies signed him in 2006. “That’s amazing, the way he was on the mound competing. The hitters were more surprised than he was. He’s mentally ready and physically, too.”
Nicasio, 25, faced hitters for the first time without a protective screen on Feb. 3, throwing 15 fastballs in an intrasquad game at the Rockies complex in the Dominican Republic. On Feb. 9, Nicasio worked two innings against players from the Cubs organization, allowing one hit and one unearned run with no walks and four strikeouts.
He threw 27 pitches, 19 strikes, and his fastball ranged from 92-97 mph and averaged 96 mph. He averaged 87 mph with his slider and 84 mph with his changeup.
On Feb. 15, Nicasio faced players from the Marlins organization and not just DSL players. He was scheduled to pitch two innings, but because they were easy and he hadn’t worked from a stretch, Nicasio pitched a third inning. He allowed two hits and one unearned run with no walks and four strikeouts in a 45-pitch outing that included 33 strikes.
In this second outing, Nicasio was 92-97 mph with his fastball and averaged 94 mph. He was 85-87 mph with his slider and averaged 86 mph, and averaged 84 mph with his changeup that ranged from 83-86 mph.
“He’s not 100 percent with his command,” Lora said, “but I would say that he’s 85-90 percent with his command. I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen. He’s ready to roll.”
Lora said that Marlins manager Raymond Nunez did something of a double take at the sight of Nicasio on the mound and asked, “That’s Juan Nicasio, the one that had that accident?”
“Yeah, yeah that’s him,” Lora said.
“That’s unbelievable, man,” Nunez said. “He’s pitching like nothing happened.”
Nicasio, who began last season at Double-A Tulsa, made his major league debut May 28 and went 4-4, 4.14 in 13 starts for the Rockies. He was very effective at Coors Field, going 4-1, 1.98 in seven starts.
In the second inning of his start Aug. 5, Nicasio was struck in the right temple by a line drive off the bat of Ian Desmond of the Nationals and suffered a fractured C1 vertebrae. Two screws were inserted in that topmost vertebrae, along with a small plate at the base of Nicasio’s skull. The screws and plate are permanent.
Nicasio could be a boon to the Rockies rotation that looms as the team’s largest uncertainty. Jeremy Guthrie and Jhoulys Chacin are givens in the rotation, which is likely to include lefthander Drew Pomeranz. The Rockies could fill out their rotation from the likes of Alex White, Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman, Esmil Rogers and Jamie Moyer with a healthy Nicasio.
“He’s a special guy, man,” Lora said. “I can’t describe how special he is because to be pitching the way he’s pitching at this time, he’s very impressive. He’ll be fine. When Opening Day comes, he’ll be there in that rotation. That’s what I believe.”