Chico fighting his way back

As Steve McCatty stands in the Space Coast Stadium hallway, turkey sandwich on standby, his instincts have him hunting. His eyes dart back and forth, and he’s ready at a moment’s notice to interrupt a thought - or merge the construction of a sentence - with a dig at whichever one of his pitchers are walking by.

The Nationals’ pitching coach comes from the school of bonding by insults and backhanded complements, which is what he’s doing as he multitasks his way through an interview. In a mere eight minutes and 50 seconds, he manages to swipe at Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Jason Marquis, Brian Bruney - and just for good measure, first baseman Adam Dunn - all in mid-thought, while answering a reporter’s questions.

Matt Chico? McCatty doesn’t know the quiet California kid all that well, he confesses, but in their short time together, they’ve already shared what both of them hope is the worst moment of the Nationals left-hander’s career.

It came in the summer of 2008, in Chico’s first start with Class AAA Columbus after the Nationals had optioned him to the minors. His elbow was hurting, his velocity was dropping and McCatty, then the Clippers’ pitching coach, could see what was going to happen if Chico kept trying to pitch hurt. So he went to the mound, and pulled Chico out knowing full well it could be the last time the kid handed over a baseball for the better part of a year.

Matt Chico

“I just said, ‘Matt, I can’t.’ He says, ‘Oh, I can go -,’ I said, ‘No. I know it’s bothering you. I can tell, and there’s no point,’” McCatty said. “You’ve got to do what’s best for him, because he’ll go out there and pitch. But when it gets to the point where you just can’t do it, that’s when you’ve got to take him out.”

Chico conceded, the Nationals ordered an MRI and the results confirmed their worst fears: The 25-year-old needed Tommy John surgery that would keep him out for the rest of 2008 and all of 2009. He cascaded down from 31 big-league starts in 2007 and became a forgotten man by the start of 2009, rehabbing in Viera when the Nationals went north, and shuttling from rehab workouts to his nearby home while the team played out the first half of the season.

“Every time (I worked out), I wanted to get out there - because it’s feeling good - you want to get out there and throw it,” Chico said. “You’ve got to realize you’re not going to feel good for 20, 24 months or so.”

That long wait is finally over, and Chico, at age 26, is in Nationals camp finally hoping to grab the sustained major-league success he’s only had in fleeting stretches to this point. He says he feels no pain in his elbow, and he’s impressed the Nationals so far with how he’s throwing.

The battle for rotation spots is more crowded than ever, made that way by the handful of Nationals prospects who got big-league experience in Chico’s absence - and by the return of Livan Hernandez, who was traded to Arizona in the deal that brought Chico and Garrett Mock, another rotation hopeful, to Washington.

But if there’s such a thing as a camp sleeper, consider Chico’s work in the first few days of spring his application for the title.

“He doesn’t have any apprehension about throwing,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “I didn’t see him pitch. But I’ve heard he’s a guy who knows how to pitch. I love those guys. He’s not going to light the gun up - I hate to mention these guys in the same name of Tom Glavine and people like that, they don’t light the gun up, but they know how to pitch. I think Chico was one of those kinds of guys, from what I hear in our meetings. If he can get 100 percent healthy, which it looks like he is, and he knows how to pitch, I think we’ve got a guy there who can really do some good things for us.”

If the former third-round pick has anything going for him, it’s a general manager who first drafted him in Arizona and then was instrumental in making the trade that brought Chico to Washington happen. Mike Rizzo has always liked Chico - his competitiveness, his command of the strike zone, his mechanistic approach to hitting the strike zone - and he could wind up making the USC product his fifth starter at the end of the spring.

“He’s a tough kid. He’s been under a lot of stressful situations his whole career,” Rizzo said. “He had all those problems coming out of high school, getting drafted high (in the second round of the 2001 draft by the Red Sox) and then not signing. He’s just a tough kid that’s easy to like because of his personality and the way he competes.”

Chico’s mental assets, though, haven’t always won out over his physical limitations. He’s not terribly big - he only stands 5-foot-11 - and his fastball will hit the low 90s on a good day. Two springs ago, he started experimenting with a return to a high leg kick after former pitching coach Randy St. Claire found a video of him pitching for Fallbrook Union High School on a pitching mechanics website. The switch came in the middle of a trying spring for Chico, and while he ended up as the Nationals’ second starter at the end of camp, he fought to corral his delivery all season.

As it turns out, the elbow troubles were contributing to a dip in his velocity. But McCatty saw the tinkering as a sign Chico’s confidence in his stuff had wavered.

“You usually do that when you’re looking for an answer,” McCatty said. “Are you confident? Are you doing what you think you’re doing? You can always work on your mechanics and stuff like that. But pitching in the big leagues is from the shoulders up.”

It’s possible, though, that the surgery was a blessing in disguise; it gave Chico time to settle on a delivery without the pressure of maintaining a spot in the Nationals’ rotation. He made minute adjustments first in Viera, then in a rehab assignment with Class AA Harrisburg, and says now the leg kick is a natural part of his delivery.

He still has to prove he can do it, though.

Chico is one of about 10 pitchers competing for the final three spots in the Nationals’ rotation this spring. If you assume Scott Olsen is healthy enough to get a spot, and Hernandez wins one of the remaining jobs, that leaves Chico fighting for one spot with seven other pitchers.

But you get the sense that everyone in the Nationals’ hierarchy is rooting for him - from Rizzo, who has a long history with the pitcher, to Riggleman, who has barely seen Chico pitch, to McCatty, whose only experience with him came on one of the worst nights of his life.

His chance to earn his way back into the big-league fraternity comes now. And a chance is all he wants.

“I feel like a whole different person now,” Chico said.