By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010; D01
Let the record show Matt Chico's return engagement to the major leagues was a hit.
While it certainly wasn't the storybook yarn the Washington Nationals and their fan base had hoped he might spin, the left-hander was efficient enough in his first start in nearly two years to get through five full innings before departing with the lead.
"Well, it was pretty obvious he did a great job," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Today he was really good."
That Washington beat Florida, 5-4, on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon was more or less a footnote to Chico's story, although there was intrigue in how the Nationals (16-14) did it. The difference was Adam Dunn getting hit on the right arm by a pitch from Renyel Pinto with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
That brought home Ian Desmond, who also reached on a hit-by-pitch, with the go-ahead run. Closer Matt Capps made it stand with his 12th save, the most in the majors, in as many chances. He got all three outs in the ninth, drawing a rousing ovation from what remained of the announced crowd of 21,633 at Nationals Park.
At the start of the game, it was Chico who was greeted with cheers and applause after a lengthy interruption from baseball's highest level.
In 2008, Chico's left arm--and thus his major league career--was in disrepair. The culprit was what Chico called a "snap" after delivering a fastball in mid-April of that season that left numb the first two fingers on his throwing hand.
Yet Chico, being young and obstinate when it came to keeping his big league dream on track, refused to yield to the discomfort and continued to dig in on the pitching rubber. The thinking was perhaps his competitive instincts would be enough to carry him through whatever ailment had infiltrated his once-lively throwing arm.
Bad idea. Really bad.
Chico made a handful of doomed starts and relief appearances following the elbow injury, which indications suggested was a torn ligament.
All told, Chico's lost 2008 season included 63 hits, 17 walks and 10 home runs allowed in 48 innings. That's nearly 12 hits per nine innings and a WHIP of almost 1.7. He had an 0-6 record in 11 appearances, and his ERA was 6.19.
Before Chico could inflict further damage to himself or the Nationals, the team ordered an MRI exam, which revealed what had been suspected for weeks. Chico in fact had a completely torn ligament.
Shortly after that diagnosis, Chico had ligament replacement surgery performed by renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews.
That was July 3. Then just short of a year later, Chico began the arduous process of getting back to the big leagues with a start for Class A Hagerstown. Eventually he moved up to Class AA Harrisburg, where he rediscovered some of the velocity that made him one of Washington's more appealing prospects after he arrived via trade in August 2006.
Chico went to spring training with the Nationals intent on proving to the front office and himself that he was all the way back to being a bona fide starter in the major leagues. Although he did not make the opening day roster, Chico did enough to leave an impression.
Which brings us to Saturday, when the Nationals knew they would need a fill-in for regular starter John Lannan, sidelined for at least one turn in the rotation because of swelling in his left elbow. The Nationals announced on Tuesday that Lannan would miss his scheduled start but did not make the final decision to go with Chico until Friday.
Chico officially got the call-up from Harrisburg on Saturday morning, and when he stepped to the mound for the first pitch, he finally was back where he wanted to be. The dedication, the rehabilitation, the hours spent on buses to and from small towns in the minors had led to this, his first pitch in the major leagues since May 21, 2008.
With that, Chico promptly hit Marlins leadoff hitter Cameron Maybin.
"That first pitch, all the nerves started coming back," Chico said. "It felt like my first big league game again, but you just have to brush it back and go after the next guy."
Chico retired the next three in a row, and although he threw a wild pitch to No. 2 batter Gaby Sánchez, he also closed by striking out cleanup hitter Jorge Cantú. Chico then settled in for the next four innings before encountering trouble in the sixth by yielding three consecutive hits, including an RBI double to Cantú.
That was the end of the day for Chico, whose final line was five innings, six hits, two runs, no walks and three strikeouts on 79 total pitches. Both of those runs were earned, with the second coming when Dan Uggla's groundout to third allowed Hanley Ramírez to score to cut the lead to 3-2.
Chico lost a chance for a victory in the top of the seventh, when Sánchez hit a two-run home run off Tyler Clippard for a 4-3 lead. Clippard (5-0) had entered in place of Sean Burnett, who was pulled after walking Maybin on four straight pitches.
Clippard wound up getting the win when Josh Willingham homered to left field off Burke Badenhop (0-4) in the seventh to tie and set up an eighth inning in which three of the first four Nationals hitters reached base before Dunn stepped to the plate.
"It seems like forever since I've been up here," Chico said. "To get back up here just kind of sets a milestone for me, and hopefully I can [contribute] for a while. I know that the opportunity is always there, whether it be anywhere as far as AAA or up here, but I was thankful to still be able to throw and take the hill."