- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2007

When the Washington Nationals decided to put Matt Chico in their Opening Day rotation, they did so knowing the rookie left-hander likely would face adversity over the course of his first major league season.

The Nationals were willing to take that chance because they felt Chico, who had never pitched above Class AA, had the right mental makeup to handle the rough times and would be better off long term for it.

But over the last month or so, the 24-year-old’s development seemed to hit a snag. And when he struggled once again last night during a 6-2 loss to the New York Mets, the Nationals decided it was time to put the experiment on hold for a little while.

Chico, the only member of the Washington rotation to make every one of his starts this season, was optioned to Class AAA Columbus, a surprising demotion team officials hope will do him well.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” said manager Manny Acta, a staunch supporter of Chico since spring training. “Obviously, I’m still high on the kid. … He’s taken the ball every five days for the last 4½ months. But we have to do what’s best for him and the club. And right now, he needs to go down there and throw some strikes.”

Throwing strikes had become a chore for Chico lately. In his last three starts, totaling 141/3 innings, he issued 14 walks (including five last night during a 41/3-inning start that was his shortest since mid-June).

“All I know is, whether you’re in rookie ball or in the big leagues, you just can’t walk a guy every inning,” said Acta, who added that Mike Bacsik will return to the rotation as the club’s fifth starter. “Something has to be done.”

So Chico (5-7, 4.96 ERA in 25 starts) will head to Columbus, where he will work on a few mechanical glitches that may have affected his ability to find the plate. More importantly, he’ll have an opportunity to relax a bit, not worry about trying to beat major league teams fighting through a pennant race and simply concentrate on getting himself back into the form he displayed most of the season.

“It’s not a bad thing,” he said. “I’m going to go down, try to get my head on straight and go from there.”

From the start, this was going to be a season of learning for Chico, and he has learned much over the last 4½ months. With a tough exterior that rarely reveals even a hint of emotion, he has shown an ability to overcome rough patches and stare down some of the league’s best hitters.

But Chico’s season began to sour about a month ago, when he began having trouble both commanding his pitches and keeping the ball in the park on those times that he did find the strike zone.

Such was the case last night, when Chico needed 90 pitches just to get through 41/3 innings. When he did find the plate, he paid the price. The Mets hit a pair of solo homers — one by Damion Easley in the second, one by Moises Alou in the fourth — in another recurring theme for the young hurler.

Those were the 22nd and 23rd home runs surrendered by the rookie this season, tops on the Washington staff and among the National League leaders.

Chico’s numbers over his last seven starts do not paint a pretty picture: In 36 innings, he has given up 26 earned runs, issued 26 walks and surrendered 10 home runs.

“He’s still learning,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “His consistency is going to get there, and he’s going to get better. I don’t want to sit here and talk about too much negatives right now because he’s young. With what he’s done, sometimes you forget.”

Chico has kept a level head through all this, just one of many ways he has tried to emulate one of his favorite pitchers growing up and the man who happened to be on the mound opposing him last night: Tom Glavine.

The 41-year-old left-hander won his 301st career game in much the same fashion as he won his first 300. He pitched with confidence, attacking the strike zone and issuing only one walk in seven innings. And he pitched with smarts, avoiding dicey situations and setting himself up for favorable matchups.

Chico wears Glavine’s uniform No. 47, though he said that wasn’t done intentionally, and he knows a thing or two about the future Hall of Famer’s career. Like Chico, a young Glavine had his struggles. Pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 1988, Glavine went 7-17, learning a few things along the way.

As he packed his bags and prepared to leave for Columbus, Chico sounded like someone determined to learn from his mistakes and — like his pitching hero — emerge stronger.

“It happens to every pitcher,” he said. “I know some guys take less lumps than others. But it’s something that for me right now, I took mine. Hopefully, I’ll come back strong.”

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