By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 26 -- The video is a bit halting and somewhat grainy, but it is indeed of Matt Chico, now of the Washington Nationals, then of the Fallbrook (Calif.) High Warriors. Randy St. Claire, the Nationals' leave-no-stone-unturned pitching coach, came across it two weeks ago on a Web site known only to him and his ilk, Pitchingclips.com.
Over the year he had known Chico, St. Claire spent countless hours working on his delivery, shortening his stride, straightening his shoulders, getting him to thrust his energy toward the plate. Three days out of five last season -- when Chico was an inconsistent rookie, pitching in the big leagues without big league pitches -- Chico and St. Claire would try to figure out various ways Chico might survive.
But when St. Claire saw the video, Chico's windup was barely recognizable. His right knee came, as Chico said, "up to my nose." So St. Claire asked him if he ever did that in the past. Chico confirmed he had. And because he and St. Claire got in a bullpen and decided to try it -- not just once, but through the whole season -- Chico could sit at his locker calmly Wednesday, even though he gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings of a 10-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves.
His worst performance of the spring? Doesn't matter, he believes, because he is throwing the ball with more velocity -- and therefore more confidence. The outing against the Braves will not deter Chico, St. Claire or Manager Manny Acta.
"This is it," Chico said afterward. "I'm sticking with it. It's much better on my body, and it's better with my pitches. My pitches are a little more sharper and I guess a little better."
A caveat: Chico believes his struggles against the Braves -- in which he worked three scoreless innings before running into trouble -- came not because his stuff was poor, but because he relied too heavily on an improving fastball and, as he said, "Anybody can hit 87 or97. For me, I have to be a finesse pitcher."
But perhaps not as much in the past. Chico said his first fastball in the majors, last April against Florida, rang up at 80 mph on the radar gun. He pitched throughout last season at 83 or perhaps 84 mph. Wednesday, he was consistently at 87-88 mph.
"That's the difference between just fighting to survive and hoping you get lucky," said one scout who has watched Chico regularly, "and having a chance to get people out with your fastball."
Chico, who is scheduled to start the Nationals' second game of the season, finished spring training with lackluster statistics, a 1-2 record and 4.56 ERA. But even with Wednesday's iffy outing, club officials are much more confident in the new Chico than the earlier version. He walked six men in his first 8 2/3 innings over three outings.
In Chico's first two appearances with the higher leg kick -- one that, instead of stopping just above his waist, comes nearly to his chin -- he allowed one run over 9 1/3 innings. In his three starts since the change, he has three walks in 15 innings. Asked if this could be a turning point for Chico's career, General Manager Jim Bowden said, "No question about it."
"You got to give him credit," Acta said. "He's been able to just adopt that right away. . . . He had the courage to do it in the middle of spring training, where he's competing for a job."
Yet Chico said he was willing to try almost anything. In spring training 2005, the Arizona Diamondbacks asked Chico to lower his leg kick. He had been bothered by right knee problems, and the idea was twofold, Chico said: to ease the pounding on his knee and to get him more under control in his delivery, a change they hoped would yield more control of his pitches. He didn't feel comfortable with it then, but as he said, "At 21 years old, I wasn't really going to say anything."
But that change begat another and then another, perhaps 10 in all. "I haven't felt comfortable as far as pitching-wise in three years," Chico said.
Now, he feels comfortable again. The high kick, he said, has taken strain off his left shoulder. "I just feel more comfortable," he said.