Chico's the Man for Nats

Dimitri Young
After missing his chance to honor Jackie Robinson when Sunday's game was rained out, Nationals first baseman Dimitri Young wears the legend's No. 42 jersey Monday against the Braves. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The smattering of fans seated behind the Washington Nationals' dugout spent most of last night shielding their bodies from a light drizzle and gusting winds with plastic baggies and thick blankets. Yet, when 23-year-old rookie Matt Chico made the walk from pitcher's mound to dugout, the huddled masses managed to muster an ovation for the young lefty, who showed plenty of toughness of his own in earning his first major league victory.

The scene played in the sixth inning of the Nationals' 5-1 victory against Atlanta, about two innings later than Manager Manny Acta thought it would and one inning earlier than Chico had hoped.

The left-hander needed 37 pitches in the first inning, yet he didn't surrender a run. He struggled with his control, issuing five walks and hitting a batter mostly because the swirling winds at RFK Stadium dried his hands so much that he could hardly feel the baseball. But Chico prevailed, throwing a hitless, eight-pitch third inning that catapulted him the rest of the way.

"That was big," said Chico, who allowed one run on four hits in five innings. "Getting that was a big confidence booster. After that I kind of settled in."

His teammates made sure the performance would stand and Washington won its second in a row in front of an announced crowd of 16,316, the second smallest crowd since baseball returned to Washington.

The Nationals, who won their third in four games, took a 3-0 lead with a two-out rally in the third inning. Slumping third baseman Ryan Zimmerman brought home the first run. Zimmerman, who stepped to the plate with three hits in his last 34 at-bats, including a first-inning strikeout, singled to right field to drive Lopez in. Two batters later, Dmitri Young drove in two more runs with a double to the alley in left-center that might have instead been a three-run homer had it not been for a stiff wind.

Washington added two runs in the eighth when Brian Schneider drew a bases-loaded walk to score Zimmerman, and Young later scored from third on a Chris Snelling groundout.

Meanwhile, three Washington relievers picked up where Chico left off, combining to allow just one base runner the rest of the way. And with that, the rookie had his first career victory.

"I thought maybe I would do better, maybe go seven," Chico said. "You know, I'll take it."

Chico defied the odds by pitching into the sixth, especially when considering his laborious first inning. He walked three straight batters to load the bases before getting out of the jam by inducing a flyout to center by Atlanta's Brian McCann.

"That's one of the best things about Matt, is the way he handles himself on the mound," Zimmerman said. "Whether it's going good, or struggling a little bit, you can never tell. I think that's why he can be so good for us. He's so calm."

In the second inning, Chico bounced a pair of 2-1 pitches about two feet in front of the plate, hit Atlanta Craig Wilson and watched teammate Ronnie Belliard bobble a routine grounder to second that would have been the third out of the inning. Still, Chico survived without allowing a run and showed his composure in the third inning, when he needed just eight pitches to retire the Braves in order. He retired seven straight at one point.

"I really didn't think he would make it five innings," Acta said.

While his stat line wasn't flawless, it was good enough. Chico didn't record a strikeout but worked his way out of jams and induced a pair of double plays.

Acta pulled Chico in the sixth inning, after he walked the first two batters of the inning. One of those runners scored. Still, Chico's 97-pitch effort was the longest of his first three major league starts.

"The kid battled through 90 pitches for us," Acta said. "I was going to do anything possible to get him that 'W'."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company