Juan Nicasio returns unafraid from horrific injury

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Juan Nicasio, a 25-year-old pitcher with maybe the most welcoming smile in the Colorado Rockies' clubhouse, turned his back and laid a finger on his neck.

The thick scar leaked from his hairline, following his spine for three inches. There are screws in there, and a metal plate, and a story of perseverance that soon enough will have him on a mound asking for a baseball again.

"When the ball hit me," he said, "my body, I don't know how you say …"

He shook his hands and legs, and rolled back his eyes.

"I thought he was dead," the first baseman, Todd Helton, said.

No, no chance of that.

Nicasio touched his chest and, without a trace of ego, explained, "I have a big heart."

He signed with the Rockies six years ago, when he was 19. He grew up in Arenoso, near San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. His father, Francisco, farmed coffee and rice and tended to cows, and so did Juan. His mother, Aurelia, raised Juan and a sister.

Long and lanky, Nicasio always had the fastball. After only 80 minor-league starts, that fastball and his belief in it had carried him to the major leagues and into the Rockies' rotation. He made 13 starts last summer and won four of them. By July, when his ERA for the month was 2.92 in six starts (half of them at Coors Field), Nicasio was finding his way.

Sometimes, baseball – and life – have this way of finding you first. And sometimes the violence is incomprehensible.

On Aug. 5, in the second inning of a start against the Washington Nationals, he threw an inside fastball to Ian Desmond, just as catcher Chris Iannetta had asked. Desmond turned it into a line drive that struck Nicasio in the right temple. Knocked unconscious, Nicasio fell, hitting the mound headfirst. The impact fractured his skull and broke the vertebrae closest to his skull. His brain began to bleed.

By the time Helton reached the mound, the swelling around Nicasio's temple was "this thick," Helton said, holding his fingers four inches apart.

Nicasio underwent surgery and awoke in a hospital being assured he'd be able to walk, and that he'd pitch again if he wanted to, but it would take some time, and everyone would understand if he didn't.

It was a funny thing, though. Nicasio wouldn't have to be talked back onto the mound. He wouldn't have even a moment's hesitation.

When he returned to Arenoso, his friends and parents encouraged him to play ball again – "Don't worry," his father said quietly, "you're going to play again," – and Nicasio would smile.

Of course he was going to play.

On the streets in his neighborhood, people would see him in his brace, walking gingerly, and they would yell, "Oh! Nicasio!" And he would wave, tell them he was OK.

Of course he was going to pitch.

You know, as soon as the neck brace came off, and as soon as his strength returned, and as soon as the doctors would let him, and as soon as God gave him the word.

He watched the video occasionally and wondered how Desmond had hit that pitch so hard straight through the middle. He watched himself turn slightly sideways, so the ball cleared his right shoulder, and urged his glove to get up faster, to save his head. Then he saw himself go down like a knocked-out fighter, like his world had gone dark and he had no legs, and no way to stop himself.

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"Wow, it hit hard," he said.

He remembered seeing the ball, trying to catch it, trying to protect himself.

And then he was on his back, gasping for air, his lungs pulling so hard as his teammates gathered that his chest heaved, shook and heaved again. And then he was thinking, "I don't want to die."

That’s a helluva thing to think on a baseball field.

This is how careers have ended, little by little, from Herb Score to Bryce Florie to Matt Clement, how they slowly and sadly fade away. There is courage in standing so close and throwing so hard, and in getting so tangled in the ball's delivery that its return path is an afterthought. There is courage in convincing yourself that you won't be the one.

And then convincing yourself that it won't happen again.

"No, it's no problem," Nicasio said. "I feel the same as before. I'm not scared."

He said it over and over. He's not afraid.

"The next one," he said, "I want to catch."

He threw a few innings to hitters this winter at the Rockies academy in the Dominican Republic. On Tuesday, he'll throw live batting practice from behind a screen. Then he'll continue to pitch for a place in the starting rotation, because that's where he left off.

His dream is not unlike all of the dreams of all of the boys who play ball. It is to stand on a major-league field and win ballgames and be special. He was 71 2/3 innings in before it crashed, in the heartbeat it takes to go from lucky to unlucky … and back.

"Yeah, man, thank you God," he said. "The doctor, thank you. All my life, thank you."

Almost seven months later, he seems to be the same guy. The swelling is long gone. He massaged his right temple, where he took the impact. He has not had a headache in many months. The scar on his neck is yellowed.

Soon, it'll be his turn to pitch, and he promises the idea does not frighten him. That it never would.

"The same as before," he said.

You see, it's about the heart.

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