His left knee stable, Nicasio seeking return to form
Rockies right-hander endured up-and-down season in '13 after knee surgery
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio didn't have time last year to assess whether he still has fear from being hit in the face with a line drive and suffering a broken neck in 2011. His knee hurt too much to think about his face.
Nicasio was hit by a line drive from the Nationals' Ian Desmond in 2011, and in 2012 he made just 11 starts before suffering a season-ending knee injury. That was not sufficient. Last year, Nicasio was an inconsistent 9-9 with a 5.14 ERA in 30 starts. Even more, Nicasio wasn't extending his pitching arm toward the plate sufficiently on his follow through.
Last year's performance left open the question whether Nicasio was truly past the line drive incident, which could have been tragic if not for quick work on the field and on the operating table. Nicasio, who will start Tuesday's Cactus League game against the Giants at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, hopes to prove a more stable knee means more forceful mechanics and a return to the effective fastball he displayed when he was first called up in 2011.
Nicasio's contention has a factual basis. The left is the landing leg when a right-hander throws to the plate, so it bears the pitcher's weight.
"I feel comfortable because now my knee is good and I can follow the ball and get extension," Nicasio said. "It was more the knee. When you're hurt, you stay back."
Nicasio had surgery on the knee late in the 2012 season, then spent the winter rehabbing, which took time from conditioning. The season was a grind that included a brief demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs. But a year's end, he rested, then went through proper conditioning. During winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Nicasio reported throwing his fastball at 97-98 mph.
If he can throw the pitch with location and command, he will be able to fend off several challengers for his rotation spot. The secondary pitches are not at the level of his fastball, but more heat and downward action on the fastball enhances any secondary pitch.
The Rockies are working with Nicasio to have him in good fielding position at the end of his delivery. He just has to end up that way without pulling off pitches and losing force and command.
"It's hard to stay straight and throw more than 95 mph, but I'm working so I can be a better pitcher," said Nicasio, who pitched at around 248 pounds last year, but wants to stay in the 235-240 range this season.
Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright said Nicasio has a chance to achieve what he wants, which is hard, downward action toward his glove side.
"He pulled off a lot because of his knee, but now it's a lot stronger," Wright said. "He can hold his finish. But he couldn't hold his finish as long, 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."
Butler's poise, presence impress Weiss
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies prospect Eddie Butler's Cactus League debut Monday night featured a nice surprise.
The right-hander walked the first batter he faced in the fifth inning of the Rockies' 5-0 loss to the D-backs, but breezed through that and the sixth with little trouble. No Rockies pitcher had gone longer than two innings this spring, but manager Walt Weiss sent Butler out for a third.
Butler gave up two runs in an inning that featured a double by the D-backs' Mike Jacobs. But three innings with one hit and two walks was a nice debut for Butler, who posted a 1.80 ERA at three levels last season and finished at Double-A Tulsa.
"It was a surprise," said Butler, 22. "My spot was coming up in the lineup, and I figured they were going to pinch-hit for me, and [Weiss] told me, 'Hey, if you want another inning, you've got it.'"
Butler, already on the big league radar, threw his fastball at a top speed of 97 mph and worked mostly 93-95. He impressed Weiss.
"His pitch count was pretty low through two innings -- his pitch count was [set at] 45 and he ended up getting 43," Weiss said. "He had to work a little bit through that third inning, but he's a good-looking kid."
Butler said he didn't get some calls low in the strike zone that he thought he would and was happy he held his composure for the most part.
"I was overthrowing just a touch, because I knew I wasn't getting the calls, so I tried to bring it up," Butler said. "A couple pitches flattened out and they were able to get a piece of those. For me, a big thing was not showing up the umpire. It was working through that and trying to keep my mental game under control."
Monday was a big day for the Rockies' top pitching prospects. Butler, out of Radford University, was a supplemental first-round choice in 2012. Righty Jon Gray, the team's first-round pick and the third overall choice last year out of the University of Oklahoma, threw two scoreless innings earlier Monday in the Rockies' 8-1 loss to the Mariners at Peoria, Ariz.
Friedrich glad to end drought away from game action
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Monday night was more than just Spring Training for Rockies left-hander Christian Friedrich. He hadn't been in a game of any kind in 10 months and last threw in a Major League contest on July 28, 2012, before suffering a stress fracture of the lower back.
Friedrich's 1 2/3-inning outing against the D-backs was mixed. He struck out three but gave up a run on three hits and two walks. But even with all the rust from not being in games, Friedrich took the outing as a positive first step in his attempt to compete for a spot in the season-opening rotation.
"I took a look around to kind of get acclimated, and it was pretty neat," Friedrich said. "It felt great. It's the beginning of spring and you have ups and downs. But after a year and all the rehab, and I know it was just another game and an inning and two-third, but it felt like it was worth every bit of waiting.
"[Manager Walt Weiss] told me, 'Atta boy, and really nice job.' Everybody was real positive. I know it wasn't exactly what you want to see, with two walks and a few hits and being taken out. But everyone is real supportive of me being back out there throwing."
The Rockies came to camp planning to allow competition for the rotation spot held by Juan Nicasio. Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin could miss the start of the season because of a right shoulder strain, so that opens another spot.
Weiss did not rule out Friedrich, despite his year of minimal activity -- four starts at Triple-A Colorado Springs, the last on April 21. But the time away was something Friedrich would have to overcome.
On Monday, Friedrich said he felt smoother out of the windup than the stretch.
"The coaches are trying to remind me: one thing at a time, not to try to have it all at once," Friedrich said.
Anderson gets past nerves in Rockies debut
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Jitters don't usually accompany early Spring Training games, but new Rockies lefty Brett Anderson welcomed them Monday afternoon.
Anderson threw strikes on 24 of his 36 pitches in two scoreless innings against the Mariners in an 8-1 loss. He gave up two hits and a walk, but struck out two.
"It's a good day's work," Anderson said. "I was a little nervous, first day in the organization, which is good. There aren't too many nerves in a Spring Training game. But I got the adrenaline going and it was good to get back on the mound, and get back to starting, which is what I'm accustomed to doing."
Anderson started last year's season opener for the Athletics, but right ankle and foot injuries forced him out, and he was in the bullpen at season's end (1-4, 6.04 ERA in 16 games, six starts). But the Rockies acquired him for lefty Drew Pomeranz and Minor League righty Chris Jensen, and are expecting Anderson to have an impact.
Anderson used his slider against right-handed-hitting Abraham Almonte (a switch-hitter who was hitting righty) and Corey Hart for strikeouts. He tried one on a 3-2 pitch to lefty-hitting Xavier Avery, but ended up walking him. Anderson threw his fastball 92-94 mph.
"My stuff was pretty good to right-handers, but I had some bad breaking balls to lefties," Anderson said.
Anderson grew up a fan of veteran Mark Buehrle, who is known for working quickly, and his father is the pitching coach at the University of Houston and taught him that teammates like playing behind a quick pitcher. There were few projected or prospective starters in Monday's lineup, but whoever was behind him had to appreciate it.
"The average baseball game is boring watching it -- there's a lot of down time," Anderson said. "I'm trying to make action, get outs as quickly as possible, make it good for fans, players and the flow of the game."
Pacheco prescribed rest for strained shoulder
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Jordan Pacheco, the Rockies' projected backup catcher, was scratched before Monday's game against the Mariners with a left shoulder strain. Rockies head athletic trainer Keith Dugger, who called the injury one of "overuse," said Pacheco underwent an MRI on Monday afternoon and would be out of action for at least two days.
Pacheco, 28, began last season as backup first baseman, but a lack of playing opportunity led the Rockies to move him back to catcher, his Minor League position. Pacheco led Major League rookies in 2012 with a .309 batting average, but hit .239 last season.
Michael McKenry, who turns 29 on Tuesday, started at catcher Monday. McKenry, who played for the Rockies in 2010 and the Pirates 2011-13, appears recovered from a left knee injury that shortened last season. On Monday, McKenry was robbed of extra bases when the Mariners' Abraham Almonte chased down his fourth-inning drive. McKenry was charged with two throwing errors, one when he nearly collided with the hitter in the batter's box after scooping a low pitch.
Morneau day to day with stiff neck
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- New Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau hasn't played since Friday's Spring Training opener because of neck stiffness, the club announced Monday night.
The club said his availability is day to day.
Morneau, 32, signed a two-year, $12.5 million contract with the club during the offseason to replace the retired Todd Helton at first base.
Last season, Morneau hit .259 with 17 home runs and 77 RBIs between the Twins and Pirates. He went 7-for-24 (.292) in six postseason games.
Second baseman Josh Rutledge did not play at all Monday because of a recurrence of left ankle soreness, and his availability is also day to day.