Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Matt Chico, appearing in a big-league game for the first time since 2008, looked sharp.
So why was the left-hander so nervous about a measly, two-inning relief appearance this afternoon against the Mets?
"This felt like my first big-league game in '07," he said. "That's what it felt like. My heart felt like it was jumping out of my chest."
At least Chico managed to throw all of his pitches in the immediate vicinity of the strike zone. This is someone who, after all, once stood on the mound at Dolphin Stadium, reached back and somehow saw his offering land in the third row of the stands behind the first-base dugout.
Nerves or not, Chico has always had an ability to regain his focus. Even after that fateful pitch in Miami three years ago, he came right back seconds later and threw a strike.
And in that same vain, Chico today overcame those early butterflies and quickly established his presence on the mound. He faced six New York batters -- David Wright, Jason Bay, Daniel Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, Alex Cora and Omir Santos -- and retired all six. Two flyouts. Two groundouts. A popout. And a strikeout of Santos on a nifty changeup.
"That was very encouraging," manager Jim Riggleman said. "Both from the standpoint of evaluating him, but still just for the little bit of a feel-good story there for Matt. After what he's gone through the past couple years ... it was just really a very good feeling to see him out there throwing the ball like he did today."
It's been nearly two years since Chico underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, a procedure that sidetracked his career at age 25 but could ultimately resurrect it. Before the surgery, his fastball barely reached 85-86 mph. He surpassed that today, maintaining it in the 87-89 mph range, and he believes he can consistently crack the 90 mph barrier by the time April rolls around and he's gotten a full spring's worth of work in.
Nationals front-office execs watching Chico from the front row today at Tradition Field noted his increased velocity and came away impressed with the lefty's efficient performance.
Two scoreless innings on March 7 aren't going to earn Chico a spot in the Opening Day rotation, but if he keeps this up, don't be surprised to see him at Nationals Park in four weeks. He's still got plenty of supporters in this organization, none more important than general manager Mike Rizzo, who originally selected him in the third round of the 2003 draft while serving as the Diamondbacks' scouting director.
Nats execs like the professionalism and quiet nature in which Chico goes about his business. They like his grit. And they like his chances for success now that he's got better "stuff" to go along with his guile.
Is Chico ever going to be anything more than a back-of-the-rotation starter? Probably not. But the guy did manage to post a respectable 4.63 ERA in those 31 starts as a rookie in 2007, and did so with an elbow that was already beginning to deteriorate.
With plenty of uncertainty swirling around Washington's rotation behind top starters John Lannan and Jason Marquis, it's not difficult to imagine Chico making the trek north at the end of the month and cracking the Opening Day roster.
He's still got plenty left to prove this spring. "Today's over," he said. "I've got to move on."
But for a guy facing a key test in his first appearance against big-league hitters in almost two years, Chico passed with flying colors.