New year, new chapter in Nicasio comeback story
Having overcome life-threatening injury, righty sets sights on return from knee surgery
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The most heartwarming development of the Rockies' 2012 Spring Training was pitcher Juan Nicasio's comeback from a broken neck the previous August to win a spot in the season-opening rotation.
Now it's a new spring, and Nicasio is working on another comeback. This one, thankfully, is more conventional.
Nicasio, 26, nearly died on the Coors Field mound on Aug. 5, 2011, when the Nationals' Ian Desmond struck him in the face with a line drive and he tumbled to the ground with a fractured skull and broken neck.
After surprising everyone with his comeback last spring, Nicasio's season ended on June 2. He suffered a left knee injury trying to field Elian Herrera's hard grounder through the mound. Setbacks during his rehab eventually led to surgery on July 16 to remove four bone chips and perform a microfracture to promote healing.
On Monday, after taking his physical at the Rockies' complex at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Nicasio smiled and shrugged off his run of bad luck.
"I felt bad, because when I played in the Minor Leagues I was never hurt, then I get hurt, back-to-back," said Nicasio, who will join the rest of the Rockies' pitchers and catchers in their first official spring workout on Tuesday. "I've been around for two years, but I've pitched for just three months. Still, thank you, God, for everything. It's what happens sometimes, you know?
"But I keep working."
The comeback from microfracture surgery has proven difficult for athletes in other sports, as well as baseball players who have to run great distances. But Nicasio and Rockies head athletic trainer Keith Dugger both say the pitcher appears to be past his recovery period.
Dugger said the key for Nicasio was being given time to rest. The Rockies did not let him participate in the Dominican Winter League, and Nicasio said it ultimately was a good decision. Not only was he allowed to recover and rehab the knee at the team's complex in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, without the stress of games, but he could work on the biggest question -- outside of injuries -- in his development.
Nicasio throws a heavy fastball and a slider, but to succeed as a starter -- something the Rockies firmly believe he will do -- he will need to develop an offspeed pitch. In bullpen sessions last year, Nicasio worked on a two-seam, sinking changeup, but he threw precious few in games.
"I need this pitch," he said. "I played a couple of innings at the complex and threw a lot of changeups. I want to throw it a lot in Spring Training."
Nicasio also must be more consistent with his slider, which can be a real weapon but also a liability when he leaves it up and in the middle of the plate. In 24 total Major League starts, he is 6-7 with a 4.65 ERA. There is plenty of room for growth, and Nicasio has the raw talent to accomplish that growth.
"He's a guy that has been knocked down a couple of times with some adversity," new Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "He's got some battle scars and he's competing. He's got an electric arm. If this guy is able to show up and take his best shot, he's got a chance to be real exciting."
Nicasio has had some misfortune, but he put it into perspective.
"The knee is nothing after the neck," Nicasio said. "But I'm lucky. I've never had an arm injury, and I have the opportunity to play the game. Everybody here knows I can do it. I need to play a whole season so everybody can see."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.