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Comeback trail: Colorado’s Juan Nicasio takes major step in recovery from broken neck

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Juan Nicasio faced live hitters for the first time since breaking his neck in August. (AP)

The scariest injury of the 2011 baseball season is shaping up to become 2012's most inspirational story: Colorado Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio has taken a major step in his recovery from the broken neck he suffered on Aug. 5.

According to Troy Renck of the Denver Post, Nicasio, who has been throwing off a mound for several weeks in the Dominican Republic, graduated to facing live hitters in a controlled environment (behind the protection of an L screen) on Monday, just five months after Washington's Ian Desmond struck him in the side of the head with a line drive. The contact momentarily knocked him unconscious, causing him to fall and fracture his C-1 vertebrae.

His quick comeback is remarkable. Astonishing even. Those are the words that come to mind when I think about how devastating this injury had the potential to be, compared to where Nicasio is now. The moment it happened, the worst fears going through my mind and the minds of most didn't revolve around a resumption of his playing career, but rather would this 24-year-old man have the opportunity to enjoy a normal life again.

Now, a return to big leagues doesn't just seem possible, but very likely.

But I guess we shouldn't be too surprised. This is, after all, the same guy who walked out of the hospital just five days after Rockies head trainer Keith Dugger, the medical personnel on hand at Coors Fields and the surgical staff at Denver Health Medical Center provided the quick and necessary care needed to not only to preserve his ability to live normally but many believe to save his life. The same guy that returned to Coors Field on Aug. 17. and walked onto the field without assistance to acknowledge and thank fans for their support.

And yes, the same late-blooming prospect who was summoned from Double-A Tulsa to make his major-league debut — an emergency start in place of the injured Jorge De La Rosa — on May 28 and limited the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals to one unearned run over seven innings. An outing that not only impressed because of the stuff he had in his repertoire, but also established the fearlessness and toughness we're seeing on display in his recovery.

Sure, Nicasio had his ups and downs in the outings that followed, but he accomplished a lot of things he wasn't even supposed to be ready to attempt, and he never once looked intimidated or overwhelmed while doing so. What it all added up to was a 4-4 mark with a 4.14 ERA in 13 starts (4-1, 1.98 at Coors Field.) A small sample size to be sure, but definitely a bright spot in an otherwise lost season for the Rockies and their fans.

He could be an even brighter star in 2012. As Troy Renck also tells us, if Nicasio's recovery continues at the pace it's on now, he'll be ready to face live hitters without the L screen prior to spring training, and he will be firmly in the mix to earn a spot in the Rockies' opening day rotation. Looking over the list of pitchers currently slated to compete with him, the only thing I believe can stop Nicasio is the inability to overcome the looming mental hurdle of facing live hitters unprotected and game competition.

Knowing what I think I know about Juan Nicasio, he'll not only get over that hurdle, he'll clear it with plenty of room to spare.

Prediction: Nicasio starts the Rockies home opener against the San Francisco Giants on April 6.

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