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For Starters, Chico Looks Like One

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., March 21 -- The Washington Nationals' starting pitcher Friday, a day that lines up with the assignment of taking the ball for the second game of the regular season March 31, was supposed to have been a tall, lanky right-hander with a penchant for brooding over every imperfection. Instead, it was a shorter, squatty lefty who won over the team's management as a rookie in 2007 by surviving nearly a full season in the majors with little more than an 85-mph fastball and a fighter's heart.

The fact the suddenly departed John Patterson was replaced Friday by his polar opposite, lefty Matt Chico, was no accident. The spot in the rotation created when Patterson, 30, was released Thursday signaled the team's desire to give the ball to someone younger, hungrier and -- frankly -- better, at least at this moment. And on Friday, the Nationals all but declared that pitcher was Chico.

"We almost have our minds made up," Manager Manny Acta said of Chico, before Friday's start. "We haven't made the final decision yet, but I don't think a good or bad start is going to change our mind. . . . Our decision is almost made."

Chico, 24, certainly did nothing to make Acta regret saying that, throwing 4 1/3 scoreless innings against a fearsome New York Mets lineup that featured six of its eight projected starters. Chico allowed six hits, but only one walk, while striking out two and continuing to refine the new delivery and new curve ball he first unveiled in his previous start.

"It's starting to become more natural," Chico said of the new delivery, which is actually an old one he abandoned three years ago. "It still needs more work out of the stretch. It's too quick sometimes, and other times I'm too slow. So I need to find a happy medium. But I felt comfortable with everything, as far as [throwing] all my pitches."

Barring unforeseen developments, then, the Nationals will open the season with a rotation of Odalis P¿rez, Chico, Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann and (assuming he is ready to come off the disabled list by April 13, when the Nationals expect to first need a fifth starter) Shawn Hill. The order is still to be determined, although presently P¿rez's turn lines up with the Opening Night start, March 30 at the Nationals' new ballpark.

If P¿rez, a lefty, indeed gets the Opening Night assignment, the Nationals may drop Chico lower in the rotation to avoid having lefties pitching back-to-back games.

Given Acta's endorsement of Chico before the game -- the other leading candidate for the final rotation spot was lefty John Lannan -- it now seems clear the stunning release of Patterson the day before was expressly designed to make room for Chico, who entered 2007 as a 23-year-old who had never pitched above Class AA but wound up leading Nationals starters in wins, starts and innings pitched. Had the Patterson move not been made, it seemed certain Chico was headed to the minors.

Chico "went out the whole season for us last year and competed well under [difficult] circumstances," Acta said, "coming up from Double-A at such an early age. I think he did what he had to do last year."

Friday marked Chico's second start since returning to the old delivery -- featuring a higher leg-kick -- that the Arizona Diamondbacks insisted he abandon in 2005, when he was a struggling farmhand in their system. Revived after Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire saw it on some old video, the new, more dynamic motion produces more momentum behind Chico's pitches, allowing him to return a curveball -- which he also abandoned in 2005 -- to his repertoire (along with a fastball, slider and change-up) and adding several miles per hour to his fastball, which clocked in Friday at between 86-88.

"He pounds the strike zone," said veteran catcher Paul Lo Duca, who made his first appearance of the Grapefruit League season Friday, after recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee. "He can throw four pitches for strikes. It makes him tough. He's a competitor. He takes the ball and doesn't care who's at the plate. He goes right after guys. He's the kind of guy I like. He's not scared. He's definitely not scared. And that's huge."

The Nationals allowed Chico to start the fifth inning Friday, even though his pitch-count was creeping toward his rough limit of 80, and Acta pulled him two batters into the inning, after Mets shortstop Jos¿ Reyes doubled sharply to left, with his pitch count at 84. Afterward, at a point when he has grown accustomed to some post-performance shoulder soreness, Chico marveled at the fact he was basically pain-free.

"There's a lot less stress on my arm" with the new delivery, he said. "I feel like I can pitch pain-free."

Chico shrugged off a couple of questions about his standing in the race for a rotation spot, unwilling to acknowledge what was quickly becoming obvious until it is spelled out for him officially. But by all accounts and appearances, the Nationals have made a spot for him, even if it required releasing last year's Opening Day starter, even if they prefer Chico to believe he is still fighting for it.

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