Nationals pitcher Matt Chico is healthy and ready for spring training

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; D03

VIERA, FLA. -- Let's be honest here: Matt Chico looked like death warmed over Wednesday morning. The bloodshot eyes. The raccoon rings. The slow, zombie shuffle. Anyone who has been a parent would recognize the look. Indeed, the nights are long and ugly at the Chico household here, not far from the Washington Nationals' spring training complex: Sydnie, 16 months, is teething. Parker, eight weeks, is colicky. One or both of them is up every hour or two. All night, every night.

"When spring training starts, I'm going to have to move to another room," Chico said Wednesday, with that perfect new-father tone of fake remorse. "I've got no choice."

But if there is a weariness in Chico's face, it might also have something to do with the long, tortuous road he has taken to get to this place in his professional life -- finally healthy again, back in big league camp, throwing the way he did five years ago, when he was a young pitcher with a promising future.

Here, folks, is your camp sleeper, that guy everyone has forgotten about -- out of sight, out of mind -- but who just might sneak up on the teeming scrum of humanity that will begin vying for rotation spots when the Nationals' spring training officially opens on Friday, and who just might steal one.

"I hope that happens," Chico, a 26-year-old left-hander, said. "Obviously, it all depends on how I perform this spring. But I know one thing: This is the first spring training where I've felt this good in a long, long time."

In case you had forgotten about Matt Chico, here's the quick refresher. Acquired from Arizona in the Liván Hernández trade in August 2006. Pitched admirably as a rookie in 2007, making 31 starts and going 7-9 with a 4.63 ERA. Lost his fastball, his effectiveness and ultimately his elbow ligament in 2008. Rehabbed for the first half of 2009 before returning to make 15 minor league starts.

Here, though, is some of the stuff you might not have known: He pitched through a partially torn elbow ligament for at least part of his time with the Nationals. Even after hearing a "snap" when he threw a fastball in mid-April 2008, and after feeling the first two fingers of his left hand go numb, Chico made four more disastrous starts and a handful of relief appearances with what, in hindsight, was almost certainly a completely torn ligament.

Finally, when he couldn't throw his fastball more than 60 feet, the team ordered an MRI exam, which revealed a complete tear. Shortly thereafter, he had ligament replacement (or "Tommy John") surgery by James Andrews. "Dr. Andrews told me the only reason I was able to keep throwing was because the ligament was calcified over," Chico said.

That battered soul who went out to the mound every fifth day early that season? Chico hopes that isn't the final image he leaves in the minds of Nationals fans. "No one here has really seen [the pitcher] I really am," he said. "I tried to go out there and compete the best I could. But it's tough when you're facing Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, and you're throwing 80, 82 [mph], and you're trying to go inside with that stuff."

He was back on the mound 11 months after the surgery, starting with Class A Hagerstown, and by the time he finished up with Class AA Harrisburg last fall, his fastball was back to where it was when he was a young stud, back in the 89-91 mph range, with an occasional 93. Though he hasn't had a radar gun on him again since then, he has been throwing at the Nationals' complex since December and he can tell just by feel that his good fastball is still there.

And he also knows he gained something intangible from having been forced to survive all that time with a fastball that was eight or 10 ticks below his best: He learned to be a better, smarter, more precise pitcher. He is thankful for having gone through his own version of pitching hell.

"When I think back now, it doesn't feel like [2008] was only a year and a half ago," he said. "It feels like a lifetime ago."

Nationals notes: Relief pitcher Brian Bruney lost his arbitration case in a decision handed out Wednesday. He will earn $1.5 million this year, not the $1.85 million he requested. . . . The Nationals also agreed to terms with left-handed pitcher Ron Villone on a minor league contract that includes a spring training invitation.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company