- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. Just 10 days ago, Matt Chico was throwing off a bullpen mound at the Washington Nationals’ spring training facility, trying to emulate a video of himself from high school in what seemed like a desperate move to make the team’s starting rotation.

He had gotten drilled in his first two spring outings, walking five hitters and giving up three homers in 62/3 innings. After seeing several Nationals pitchers pull up a short video from PitchingClips.com and joking about a teenage Chico, pitching coach Randy St. Claire suggested he tinker with the high leg kick he had used in high school, just to see whether it helped him feel more comfortable on the mound.

And in a week that has included the release of the team’s 2007 Opening Day starter and the emergence of his likely successor off a minor league contract, the strangest news concerning the Nationals pitching staff might be this: Their final starter appears to be a 24-year-old with an 84-mph fastball, a work-in-progress curveball and the guts to overhaul his delivery three weeks before the season.

Barring two dominant starts from fellow left-hander John Lannan, Chico’s impromptu changes likely will land him in the team’s rotation for the second year in a row. Manager Manny Acta wouldn’t say that outright yesterday, but he gave a strong hint Chico would be his fourth starter.

“We almost have our mind made up. These guys are not going start-by-start, Acta said. [Chico] went out there the whole season for us last year and competed well, under the circumstances, coming up from Double-A at such an early age … The decision is almost made.

Chico, who led the team in innings last year with 167, has given up just one run on nine hits in 91/3 innings since reverting to the high leg kick delivery that minor league coaches had asked him to abandon in favor of a shorter approach to the plate.

He has used it to reintroduce a curveball he said the delivery gives his breaking ball more bite and reduce the stress that has given him shoulder tendinitis the last few seasons.

And though he labored through 84 pitches in 41/3 innings yesterday, he’s heading into his final start of spring training with more confidence than he has had in a long time.

I felt a lot more comfortable with everything, as far as all my pitches, he said. Half of it is results and half of it is how I feel. I haven’t thrown a curveball in three years, and I’m starting to throw one now.

It’s likely the Nationals will open the season with four starters, since they are off the first two Tuesdays of the schedule, and bring Shawn Hill off the disabled list on April 13.

Conventional logic had Odalis Perez, who came to camp on a minor league deal, starting on Opening Day, followed by John Patterson, Tim Redding and Jason Bergmann. But when Patterson was released on Thursday, it opened up the final spot for either Chico or Lannan.

The 6-foot-5 Lannan has certainly made his case for the spot, and could build a late charge with a strong outing against the Braves today. He’s 1-0 with a 3.12 ERA this spring, showing the same kind of willingness to challenge hitters he displayed in his rise from Class A Potomac to the a mid-season major league call-up in 2007.

Now, especially, I’ve got to stop thinking and realize it’s out of my hands, he said Thursday night after the news that Patterson had been cut. Once I start thinking about it, it gets in my head and you lose what’s really important, which is just pitching.

But the job Chico did last season, making 31 starts after having never pitched above Class AA, appears to have the Nationals leaning in his direction.

He’ll have one more outing to tinker with his new pitch and pin down the timing of his delivery, which he said still needs some work.

For now, though, it appears Chico’s bold decision has paid off.

I like it. He’s getting the ball down in the strike zone, and he’s throwing all four pitches for strikes, said Paul Lo Duca, who caught Chico for the first time in a major league game yesterday. He’s the kind of guy I like. He’s definitely not scared, and that’s huge.

Notes Lo Duca went 1-for-3 in his first game of the spring and said his surgically repaired knee gave him no problems. He threw out Jose Reyes, who was trying to steal third, from his knees in the fifth inning. [My knee] feels good, Lo Duca said. I’ll talk to Manny a little bit, maybe catch Sunday, then Monday, try to get a couple back-to-back days and see how I respond. …

Acta and trainer Lee Kuntz came out to check on Elijah Dukes after his second-inning double, but the left fielder said after the game his strained hamstring is fine. I’m experiencing a little soreness, just from the swelling, he said. It’s still sore, but at the same time, I can run without doing further damage. …

General manager Jim Bowden was fine with second baseman Felipe Lopez saying on Tuesday he wouldn’t accept a bench role, adding he would be worried if Lopez hadn’t said that. Bowden said nothing has changed from the plan to start Ronnie Belliard at second base and also didn’t rule out trading Lopez. A lot can happen in this game, Bowden said. There can be injuries, there can be trades and there can be accepting roles until the situation can be resolved for everybody.

SEEN AND HEARD IN PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA.

METS 8, NATIONALS 2

After Washington built a 2-0 lead through four innings, its bullpen gave up eight in the next three. David Wright tied the game on a two-run homer off Chris Schroder in the fifth, and the Mets strung together three runs in the sixth and seventh off him and Jason Stanford.

Elijah Dukes was 1-for-3 in his first game after straining his hamstring March 14, hammering a double to the left-field corner. Austin Kearns’ solo homer in the second was his second of the spring.

TEMPERATURE CHECK

UP MATT CHICO

Solid, not great in 41/3innings; has inside track to starting job.

UP PAUL LO DUCA

No knee problems, guns down one of game’s fastest in Jose Reyes.

DOWN CHRIS SCHRODER

Gave up three runs; losing fight for last bullpen spot.

DOWN FELIPE LOPEZ

Went 1-for-3, but made fourth error of spring and dropped tough pop-up.

OVERHEARD

“Attitude is a choice, and I can only control mine.”

— Manny Acta on second baseman Felipe Lopez saying he wouldn’t accept a backup role

BY THE NUMBERS

2.73 Points Matt Chico has shaved off his spring ERA since changing his delivery.

TODAY’S WEATHER

Washington: Showers, 51 degrees.

Viera: Afternoon showers, 77 degrees.

FIVE-DAY SCHEDULE

Today: vs. Braves at Viera, 1:05 p.m.

Tomorrow: vs. Marlins at Jupiter, 1:05 p.m.

Monday: vs. Tigers at Viera, 1:05 p.m.

Tuesday: vs. Cardinals at Jupiter, 1:05 p.m.

Wednesday: vs. Braves at Lake Buena Vista, 1:05 p.m.

HOW TO GET TO SPACE COAST STADIUM

From Orlando/North: Take Route 528 East (Beachline Expressway) 25 miles to Interstate 95 South. Exit I-95 South at Fiske Boulevard (Exit 195). Proceed south on Fiske Boulevard/Stadium Parkway two miles to the stadium on the right. Approximate time: 45 minutes.

From Melbourne/South: Take I-95 North to Wickham Road (Exit 191) and turn left. At the traffic circle, turn right on Lake Andrew Drive. Turn left on Judge Fran Jamieson Way. Turn right on Stadium Parkway and follow to the stadium on the left. Approximate time: 20 minutes.

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