I have always rooted for the underdog, growing up I loved watching Larry Walker and Dante Bichette and Andres Galarraga, but found my favorite players to be Darren Holmes, Jason Bates and Jayhawk Owens. More recently Chris Iannetta was the player I followed, living and dying with each at a bat, while still enjoying Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez. Now with Iannetta gone to Angels, the time has come to find a new Rockies player to spend my summers cheering for.
Sometimes it feels silly being a grown man, cheering for players younger than yourself, who are getting paid more money in one year than you can imagine having in a lifetime, just to play a child’s game for a few months. We know more about how they hit with runners in scoring position and in what count they like to bury a slider in the dirt than we do about them as people, but we spend our summers reading about, writing about and watching them play a game. But if there is one player deserving of the admiration of complete strangers it is Juan Nicasio.
We should have known about the mental toughness of Nicasio from the start. After pitching in only nine games above A ball, he made his MLB debut in May, going seven innings and giving up only one unearned run while beating the eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals. He went from emergency spot starter to a regular in the rotation in the blink of an eye. There was the inconsistency that you expect from young players, eight shutout innings one start followed by giving up 5 runs in less than three innings in the next, but he showed the mound presence of a veteran while learning how to pitch at the highest level.
Then on August 5th, a line drive struck Nicasio in the head, cracking the C-1 vertebrae in his neck, ending his season and putting his career in question after only thirteen major league games. The comeback began quickly though, and after being out of a neck brace for less than a month, in late October, Nicasio started throwing off a mound. In November he was throwing bullpen sessions in his native Dominican Republic. December found him throwing to hitters behind an ‘L’ screen. In January the screen was removed. February brought intersquad games, followed by simulated games against the Cubs and Marlins DSL teams.
His velocity and command have reportedly returned to where they were before the injury, and Nicasio is fully participating in Rockies spring training. Maybe he is too young to know any better, or he just has ice-water in his veins, but what Juan Nicasio is doing is very special, much more so than striking out batters or hitting home runs. The fairy tale ending would be Nicasio starting the Rockies home opener in 2012 and continuing on to baseball stardom, but whatever does actually happen, Juan Nicasio has already earned my admiration and respect as well as a new fan.