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Rockies' Nicasio, finally healthy, looks for improvement

The SportsXchange

The Colorado Rockies went to spring training optimistic about Juan Nicasio having a breakthrough season. The right-hander's first two Cactus League starts only fortified that feeling.

Nicasio held the San Francisco Giants to two singles in three scoreless innings March 4, retiring the final seven batters he faced with no walks and four strikeouts.

On March 9, Nicasio held the Kansas City Royals to one single in four scoreless innings. He walked one and struck out three, throwing 31 of 49 pitches for strikes.

With his surgically repaired left knee strong and fully recovered, Nicasio looks vastly improved.

After pitching just 129 2/3 innings in 24 starts over his first two seasons combined, Nicasio threw 157 2/3 innings in 31 starts in 2013. He went 9-9 with a 5.14 ERA during a season that included a two-week demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs shortly before the All-Star break. Because the left knee, on his landing leg, was not completely stable, Nicasio was unable to fully stride and extend his pitching arm far enough forward toward home plate on his followthrough.

Now that his knee is no longer an issue, Nicasio is able to finish his pitches and get a true break on his slider.

"He pulled off a lot because of his knee, but now it's a lot stronger," pitching coach Jim Wright said. "He can hold his finish. But he couldn't hold his finish as long (last year), and he'd end up to the side of the ball. The perfect finish is all your energy going through the catcher, not away from the catcher."

Nicasio's 2012 season ended June 2 when he strained his left knee while reaching to his right for a ball that went by him. Two weeks later, he underwent microfracture surgery on the knee to remove four bone chips.

Nicasio made 11 starts and pitched 58 innings in 2012 after working 71 2/3 innings in 13 starts in 2011 following a late-May promotion from Double-A Tulsa. Nicasio's 2011 season ended on Aug. 5 when a line drive off the bat of Washington's Ian Desmond struck the pitcher on the right side of his head, fracturing his skull and his C-1 vertebrae.

This year, the 27-year-old came to camp contending for the fifth spot in the rotation. With right-hander Jhoulys Chacin recovering from right shoulder inflammation and destined to begin the season on the disabled list, the Rockies will need to add two starters to a rotation that includes left-handers Jorge De La Rosa and Brett Anderson and right-hander Tyler Chatwood.

Unlike the past two years when he was rehabbing, Nicasio was able to pitch in winter ball. He made five starts totaling 24 1/3 innings for Aguilas in his native Dominican Republic and went 1-0 with a 2.96 ERA.

After that stint ended Dec. 17, Nicasio was able to continue throwing and conditioning -- but not rehabbing -- to prepare for spring training and the season ahead.

After his first spring outing against the Giants, Nicasio, referring to his knee, said, "It's 100 percent different. I used to hang my slider a lot. I couldn't put my weight on my knee and I would throw with only my arm. Now I have better (stability) with my knee, so my breaking ball is sharper now. I am better."

Rockies manager Walt Weiss said, "It'll be huge for us for Juan to take the next step. (It) really lengthens our rotation, deepens our rotation. He's a big key."

NOTES, QUOTES

--LHP Boone Logan threw his first bullpen session of the spring March 8, a 25-pitch effort, and he was scheduled to throw again March 11. Logan, signed to three-year, $16.5 million contract as a free agent, underwent surgery in October to have bone chips and a bone spur removed from his left elbow. He is expected to be an important piece in the Colorado bullpen, and pitching coach Jim Wright said he hopes Logan will be ready for Opening Day. Logan used his breaking pitches March 8, a sign of progress.

--RHP Matt Belisle, 33, pitched in 302 games the past four seasons, totaling 317 relief innings. His ERA in 72 games last year was 4.32, continuing the steady rise from 2.93 in 2010 to 3.25 in 2011 to 3.71 in 2012. And his average fastball velocity dropped to 90.5 mph last year from 92.7 mph in 2010, according to FanGraphs.

The Rockies exercised a $4.25 million mutual option on Belisle for this season. They love his competitiveness, his veteran presence -- he has been valued mentor for LHP Rex Brothers -- and his willingness to always take the ball. However, Belisle may find himself pitching more in the sixth and seventh innings rather than the eighth given the Rockies' bullpen depth. He worked this offseason on incorporating his changeup and pitching inside more with an eye toward being less predictable.

"I've been maybe shortchanging myself in not using both sides of the plate, mixing things up a little better," he said. "I want to throw the changeup a little bit more, but I want to maintain my aggression. The league showed me last year I needed to make a little bit of a change."

--RF Michael Cuddyer was hit in the left shoulder blade by a 97 mph fastball thrown by Cubs RHP Jeff Samardzija on March 5. The pitch ripped off some skin and left Cuddyer stiff and sore, but Cuddyer escaped serious injury.

"There's bones in the shoulder that could chip off, and more importantly, I have my jaw right there, and that's what it was coming for," Cuddyer said. "I got lucky."

He said if it were the regular season, he could have played the following day, but instead he rested. He was scratched from the lineup March 7 after participating in pregame activities, and he resumed playing March 8.

--1B Justin Morneau played Feb. 28 in the Rockies' Cactus League opener but was out the next nine days due to a stiff neck. This early in spring training, manager Walt Weiss said Morneau has plenty of time to get ready for Opening Day, March 31 at Miami.

"My feeling is hitters don't need many at-bats down here, especially guys that have been around for a while," Weiss said.

Morneau took batting practice March 7. He said neck stiffness is something he typically experiences several times a year, the result of his neck locking up on a swing.

"If it were the regular season, I probably could have played," he said, "but it happened a month before Opening Day, so there was no reason to rush it."

--C Jordan Pacheco was scratched from the lineup March 3 due to a strained left shoulder that he aggravated during batting practice. Pacheco underwent an MRI that showed no structural damage, and he said he needed some anti-inflammatory medicine. He did not play again through March 9, but he was expected to return to action in mid-March. Trainer Keith Dugger called it an "overuse" injury.

"It's fine structurally; it's strong," Pacheco said. "You want to play every day and get your reps in spring training, but I played winter ball and I'm not too worried about it."

Pacheco played 20 games through Nov. 12 for Toros del Este in the Dominican Republic. In 73 at-bats, he hit .274 with a .354 on-base percentage and .370 slugging percentage. Pacheco, 28, went to winter ball after spending most of 2013 as a backup first baseman. He hit .239 in 247 at-bats for Colorado last year.

--2B Josh Rutledge suffered a sprained left ankle during the second day of full-squad workouts and aggravated it March 1 in a Cactus League game. "Better now than in the season, missing a whole bunch of time," Rutledge said. "The thing now is to not try to come back too quick on it, and there will still be plenty of time." He returned to the lineup March 8 against the Angels and hit a two-run homer off RHP Joe Blanton.

Rutledge was promoted from Double-A Tulsa to the Rockies at the All-Star break in 2012 to replace injured shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and he hit .274 with eight homers and 37 RBIs in 73 games. Last year, though, Rutledge hit .235 in 88 games with seven homers and 19 RBIs. He played 38 games in two stints last season at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Rutledge lost his second base job to DJ LeMahieu, who is currently the starter at that position.

Rutledge is competing with Charlie Culberson and Paul Janish for two utility infielder spots, assuming the Rockies carry five outfielders. Janish is the best defensive player among the utility candidates.

--RHPs Christian Bergman and Scott Oberg, IF Angelys Nina, C Ryan Casteel, all non-roster players, were sent to minor league camp March 8, leaving the Rockies with 60 players in camp, including 20 non-roster players. The first full-squad workout for minor league pitchers and position players was March 8.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Whether it's in the clubhouse or during drills, it's always the same. Everywhere he goes, his presence is felt." -- LHP Rex Brothers, on 41-year-old RHP LaTroy Hawkins, who pitched for the Rockies in 2007 and is back this year as their primary closer.
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