Juan Nicasio working on a miracle
Recovered from broken neck/fractured skull, Nicasio could make Rockies' rotation
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One of the most heartwarming and inspirational baseball stories in recent memory is taking place at Colorado Rockies camp this spring. And we're not talking about Jamie Moyer's quest to make the Rockies' staff at age 49.
Seven months after taking an Ian Desmond line drive off the head and suffering a broken neck, pitcher Juan Nicasio is making a serious bid to crack the Opening Day rotation. How uplifting is Nicasio's comeback? Manager Jim Tracy and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez both used to word "miracle" to describe it.
"To say he has courage I don't know if that's a strong enough choice of words," Tracy said.
Nicasio, 25, will be given every opportunity to win the fourth spot in the Colorado rotation behind Jhoulys Chacin, Jeremy Guthrie and Drew Pomeranz. He's running, lifting weights, taking part in all the drills and is on track to assume a regular workload in the Cactus League. It's an astonishing development given the medical ordeal he's had to overcome.
In an Aug. 5 game at Coors Field, Desmond hit a line drive up the middle and Nicasio was unable to throw up his glove in time to protect himself. The ball struck his left temple with sufficient force to fracture his skull and produce bleeding on the brain. To compound matters, Nicasio broke his neck during the subsequent fall. He was carried off the field on a stretcher, and underwent emergency surgery to have his C-1 vertebrae repaired.
The incident was traumatic to the Nationals, the 35,034 fans in attendance and Nicasio's fellow Rockies -- even those who weren't at Coors Field that night. Gonzalez was on an injury rehab assignment with Triple-A Colorado Springs, and he recoiled as he watched the sequence play out on TV.
"That's one of the scariest moments you're ever going to see," Gonzalez said. "To see one of your best prospects going down like that, you didn't even know if he was going to be able to come back and pitch in the big leagues. It was devastating."
Nicasio returned to Coors Field 11 days later with a protective brace on his neck and received a standing ovation, then began his comeback in earnest in November, in his native Dominican Republic. He threw six innings against young Cubs and Marlins prospects, and showed no outward signs of skittishness or anxiety.
Mike Mussina, Billy Wagner and others who've been hit in the head by comebackers have observed that there's a natural period of apprehension that pitchers must overcome. Nicasio will continue to be tested in the days and weeks ahead. But he continues to display an iron will during spring training. The Rockies have a "ragball" tournament in camp, and Nicasio barely flinched recently when Tracy hit the rag directly at his face. He has already begun throwing batting practice from behind a screen.
With his courage and optimism, Nicasio has become a role model to scores of fans. The Denver Post reported that he's received about 5,000 letters from well-wishers since his injury.
"It's crazy," Nicasio said. "A lot of people in the Dominican saw me and they were thinking I would never throw again. My father told me every day, 'No worries. You're going to play again.' It's my dream to play again in the big leagues and I'm working hard. That's what I tell everybody who wants to see me again."
Nicasio, listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, throws his fastball in the mid-90s and amassed an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 467-to-104 in the minor leagues. The website FanGraphs.com recently included him on a list of pitchers with a chance to be the "next Michael Pineda."
More important than his stuff or command, Nicasio has the fortitude to pursue his goals and the self-awareness to be ready for anything. He smiled when asked how he'll respond the next time a batter hits a hot shot through the box.
"The next one, I'm gonna catch," he said.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
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