- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

JUPITER, Fla. — If Matt Chico ever wants to look back and figure out the moment he made the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation, he might recall the first inning of yesterday’s exhibition game against the Florida Marlins.

All-Star slugger Miguel Cabrera was at the plate, fouling off everything Chico threw at him and enticing the rookie left-hander to hang a meatball that could promptly be crushed over the fence. Chico, though, refused to give in. He kept pumping out fastball after fastball, each of them fouled off by Cabrera, until he finally tried something different on the 11th pitch of the at-bat.

With the count still 2-2, Chico threw a curveball toward the outside portion of the plate. Cabrera swung, but he didn’t have a chance. Strikeout.

“That whole sequence right there alone made me more of a pitcher, I think,” he said.

A major league pitcher, as it turns out.

Manager Manny Acta wouldn’t quite go all the way and officially name Chico his No. 4 starter, but it wasn’t hard to read between the lines and realize the Nationals have made their decision.

“He can’t be celebrating yet, but he’s pretty close,” Acta said. “So many things can happen. I don’t want to put it in the headlines yet.”

It’s probably too late for that. Chico, a 23-year-old who has never pitched above Class AA, has proved he’s ready for the biggest job promotion of his life. With four scoreless innings against the Marlins yesterday, he improved to 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA this spring. Opponents have failed to score off him in three of his four starts this month.

“I’m very impressed,” general manager Jim Bowden said from his front-row seat behind the dugout at Roger Dean Stadium. “He and Shawn Hill have been the story of our spring training. That’s been the story down here: those two young arms. Both of them have done extremely well.”

Hill, who has been named the No. 2 starter behind John Patterson, came to camp believing a job was his as long as he stayed healthy. Chico, though, showed up in Florida as a long shot. The Nationals had been high on him since acquiring him from the Arizona Diamondbacks in last summer’s Livan Hernandez trade, but consensus opinion was that he probably wouldn’t be major league ready until 2008 at the earliest.

Then the major league coaching staff and front-office officials started getting a firsthand look at the 5-foot-11 lefty and liked what they saw. And when veteran starting candidates like Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan and Colby Lewis failed to perform from the outset, Chico seized the opportunity.

He’s now positioned to start Washington’s fourth game of the season — against the Diamondbacks of all teams — unless he’s bumped up to the third slot currently held by Jason Simontacchi (who is battling a groin strain).

Chico won’t let himself think about the possibility until he hears it directly from his manager, but he does believe he has done enough to merit consideration.

“To deserve a shot? Possibly,” he said. “I know a lot of other guys have pitched as well as I have, and it’s just going to come down to what they want in the starting rotation.”

The Nationals want Chico, even if they know he will hit a few bumps in the road during what could be a trying rookie season. Few young pitchers make the leap from Class AA and enjoy instant success. The good ones, though, learn from their mistakes, don’t get down on themselves when they struggle and ultimately are better for it.

“This kid can pitch,” Acta said. “Is he going to have some rough outings out there? We all have our tough days. But he hasn’t looked overmatched in one of his outings. I think he’s going to be fine, and I think he’ll be able to handle anything mentally that comes his way, too.”

Chico displayed some of that mental toughness yesterday. Admittedly struggling to throw his fastball for strikes, he made the in-game decision to start throwing more curveballs and changeups. He ran up a high pitch count during the first few innings, but he battled back to face the minimum in the third and fourth and never allowed the Marlins score.

The rookie still has two more spring training starts on his docket, and plenty can happen between now and then. Even so, Chico’s manager sounds like he has made up his mind.

“I think you put him on my team already,” Acta said. “Every day, you guys are slotting him behind Hill. You mention it so much, I think you convinced me.”

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