DENVER, CO - Pitcher Juan Nicasio #44 of the Colorado Rockies makes an appearance in the second inning against the Florida Marlins at Coors Field in Denver, Colo. Nicasio suffered a fractured C-1 vertebrae when he was hit in the temple by a batted ball from the Washington Nationals' Ian Desmond. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Juan Nicasio is throwing 97 mph again. Here's to one of the best (and most unexpected) stories of the new season.
I suppose it wouldn't be too hard to embed a video of Juan Nicasio getting hit in the head with a line drive. The videos are easy to find. But if I embedded one, there's a chance that my finger could slip and accidentally play the damned thing. Not willing to take that chance. Still haven't seen it, and I don't plan on watching it now.
Every season, there are between 700,000 and 750,000 pitches thrown in the major leagues. About 699,996 to 749,996 of those result in harmless baseball-related events. A few of them result in scary, horrifying head trauma (as opposed to the gentle, fluffy head trauma, I suppose). It's easily one of the worst parts about baseball. Every sport has something you don't want to see; baseball's "something" involves a projectile to the head.
There's a range of injuries you expect from a pitcher hit with a batted ball -- concussions, fractured eye orbitals, skull fractures -- and then there's what happened to Nicasio. The ball was traveling with such force that when it hit his head, it broke his neck. It seems ridiculous to type or read. But there it is.
Even more ridiculous: an update on Nicasio's progress from Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post.
For those players on the field that warm Friday night last year against the Washington Nationals, it's hard to reconcile Nicasio's remarkable recovery. He has been throwing side sessions in spring training, reaching 97 mph on his fastball. He's determined to break camp in the starting rotation and has the inside track on the fourth spot.
If you didn't know the outcome after seeing or reading about the line drive, it might have been a feel-good story to read about Nicasio walking for the first time since the injury. A few months after the broken neck -- "his C1 vertebra repaired with a 4-inch metal plate and two screws, his brain still bleeding from a fractured skull" -- a prognosis of a relatively normal life might have seemed like a best-case scenario. And if you were to ask about Nicasio playing baseball again, the doctor would have looked at you as if you asked if Nicasio helped fake the moon landings with Todd Helton's goatee.
Instead, we have 97 miles per hour on the brain. Nicasio isn't just looking to function again, he's looking to be one of the five best starting pitchers out of the 12,392 the Rockies have in camp. He had a stellar 3.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year in 71 innings as a rookie. For a hard-throwing starting pitching prospect, his control has always been stellar. He looks like one of the best young pitchers the Rockies can throw out there right now, and it's an organization that has a few good young pitchers.
If he's physically healthy, he seems like the best man for the job. But while the physical news is all good, there's that significant matter of his mental state. This is one of those things that will never cease to amaze the computer jockey behind his desk -- how can a human being possibly go back and pitch with the same mechanics and the same follow-through? How is it possible to circumvent all of the neurons in the brain that usually force a person to avoid whatever wrecked them in the first place?
Nicasio is going to find out. If he's touching 97, that means his velocity is right where it was before the accident, so all that's left is the mental part. Some people blame a similar situation for Herb Score's decline (though Score himself rejects that theory). In the month Marlon Byrd returned after getting hit in the face by a pitch last season, he hit .323/.370/.495. Some people are just made of different nuts and bolts.
After the injury, the bar for good news was set pretty low. Nicasio has already surpassed that bar. It's still hard to think of him as a promising 25-year-old pitcher with plus control and a great fastball just yet, but he's already become one of the more compelling stories of the 2012 season. There probably isn't an easier player to root for in baseball this year.