- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — He could have quit any number of times. After he was released by the Royals in 1997. Or the Pirates in 1999. Or the Twins in 2001. Or after he tore up his shoulder with the Cardinals in 2004. Or after he was cut early in spring training with the Cubs last year.

But the thought never crossed Jason Simontacchi’s mind. Not as long as someone was willing to give him a chance to pitch and thus a chance to return to the major leagues.

“I feel like I can still compete and, most important, be successful at it,” he said. “You get a taste of the big leagues, and there’s nothing like it.”

So the 33-year-old right-hander found himself on the mound at Space Coast Stadium yesterday, hoping to convince the Washington Nationals he deserves a spot in their Opening Day rotation.

By all accounts, Simontacchi has made a positive impression so far. He cruised through his first two innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers yesterday, needing only 14 pitches and earning the right to return for a third inning before giving up two runs and departing.

“He throws strikes. He can locate. And he knows what he’s doing out there,” manager Manny Acta said. “You play good defense behind him, and he’ll get it done for you.”

It’s the same pitching philosophy Simontacchi has used his entire professional career, and it was good enough to win 11 games for St. Louis in 2002 and nine more the following year. And it fits perfectly with his “grinder” personality. He has had to work hard for everything he has gotten out of baseball, and the sport hasn’t exactly been kind to him over the years.

A journeyman in the truest sense of the word, Simontacchi has pitched for six different major league organizations and three independent league teams and has played baseball on four different continents: North America, South America (Venezuela), Europe (Italy) and Australia. He used to spend his offseasons driving taxicabs and tow trucks.

Along the way, he has never been assured of a job with any of his teams.

“Every single time,” he said. “Every year I’ve had to earn a spot. I’m used to it. But you know what? I think that’s why I am who I am. I’ve always had to work for it.”

The closest Simontacchi ever came to real job security came a few years ago in St. Louis. He burst onto the scene in 2002 as a 28-year-old rookie to go 11-5 and help lead the Cardinals to the postseason. And he returned the next season to go 9-5 and further establish himself as a major leaguer.

But he tore the labrum in his right shoulder in 2004. After having surgery that October to repair the tear, he missed the entire 2005 season, then was booted from Cubs camp last spring when he couldn’t overcome the lingering discomfort in his shoulder.

That, Simontacchi admits, was the low point and perhaps the one time he seriously considered retirement.

“There were a couple of times over that period where my shoulder just wasn’t getting any better,” he said. “I wasn’t getting any stronger, and it hurt to throw. Your mind starts working on you and you think, ‘OK, well, maybe this is it.’ ”

Simontacchi decided to give it one more try, so he signed with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League and posted an 0.84 ERA in 10 relief appearances. Feeling stronger physically and mentally, he went to the Dominican Republic this winter to pitch for the famed Estrellas club and wound up going 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA in four starts.

Little did Simontacchi realize it at the time, but several members of the Nationals’ staff saw him pitch for Estrellas and recommended the club sign him: special assistant to the general manager Jose Rijo, bullpen coach Rick Aponte and Acta himself.

Aponte, who was serving as pitching coach for rival Escogido, noted how good Simontacchi looked.

“First of all, the poise that he showed on the mound and the control he had on his pitches,” Aponte said. “And the durability. He threw six-plus innings, which are very nice outings for winter ball. Those were established major leaguers he was facing in the Dominican.”

The Nationals signed Simontacchi to a minor league contract and invited him to come to spring training and join the dozen other pitchers battling for four open rotation spots.

He made an impression from the moment he arrived in Viera. On the field, he’s feeling as healthy as he has in three years and pitching like it. In the clubhouse, he’s becoming a well-liked and well-respected member of the team who can share his experiences with others.

“That guy has a big heart,” Aponte said. “And God bless him because all the places he has been, to make a comeback, I feel fortunate to be around him. It’s great to have a guy like him.”

Simontacchi knows he still has a long way to go to get back to the big leagues. Strong start or not, there’s plenty of time left this spring for things to turn south.

But right now, he’s not concerned about that. He’s healthy, he’s playing the game he loves and there’s nowhere else he would rather be.

“I’m just happy to be here,” he said. “It’s a cliche, I know. But I am.”

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