- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Think back to that fateful spring training of 2007, when the Washington Nationals brought in a dozen or so pitchers to audition for five starting rotation spots.

Now from that group of candidates, pick the one who was most likely to lead the staff in starts and innings pitched for the season. John Patterson, maybe. Or Tim Redding. Jerome Williams. Perhaps Shawn Hill, if he could stay healthy. Even Jason Simontacchi entered the discussion.

Matt Chico? No way.

Chico admits if someone told him he would make 31 starts and toss 167 innings as a rookie, “I would have laughed.”

“I mean, you had guys like Hill and Patterson and Jerome Williams. They had all been in the big leagues,” Chico said. “If you had told me I was going to make 31 starts, I probably would have laughed. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, but I just didn’t see it really happening.”

Of all of Washington’s surprising developments in 2007, perhaps none was more stunning than Chico’s ability to take the ball every fifth day and (for the most part) give the Nationals a chance to win.

This team used 13 different starting pitchers in 162 games. Only one made more than 21 starts: Matt Chico, a young left-hander who had never pitched above Class AA when he arrived at spring training.

Chico hardly dominated as a rookie; he went a pedestrian 7-9 with a 4.63 ERA and at times looked overmatched against big league hitters. But the 24-year-old showed a lot of grit, never appeared fazed by the experience and wound up as one of manager Manny Acta’s most reliable starters.

“It was surprising because he was the guy with less experience [than the other members of the rotation],” Acta said. “To go out there and be the only guy with 30 starts, it’s an accomplishment.”

Not necessarily enough of an accomplishment, though, to ensure a spot in the 2008 rotation. Though Chico appears to have a slight edge on some other starters in camp, some club officials aren’t sold on the short left-hander with a sub-90 mph fastball and a penchant for wildness.

Thus, Chico knows he didn’t come to spring training with a job to lose. He needs to win it back.

“Nothing’s really set until they tell you you’re going to D.C.,” he said. “There’s a few guys here that are the exception. But most of us are sitting here knowing we have to try to earn a spot.”

If Acta, general manager Jim Bowden and the rest of the Nationals’ decision makers aren’t sold on Chico’s physical abilities, they might want to consider his stone-cold mental approach to the game. Few pitchers in baseball — young or old — offer less of a window into their emotions than Chico, who neither cracks a smile nor clenches his teeth when he’s on the mound or in the clubhouse.

“He never goes off the deep end in any way, shape or form,” teammate Shawn Hill said. “He’s always even-keeled.”

Chico claims to have possessed this personality trait since childhood, when a youth pitching coach advised him not to show any emotion.

“That’s one thing I’ve kind of learned over the years,” he said. “If you start letting things get to you, it’s just going to bring you down more. You just have to be able to go with the ride.”

There were a handful of moments last season when Chico could have cracked.

In his major league debut, he allowed six runs, eight hits and three homers in only four innings. At Florida in his fourth career start, he walked seven and threw one ball so far off target — into the third row of the first-base stands — it is now known around the Washington clubhouse simply as “The Pitch.”

“Probably one of the highlights of the season,” said Hill, who joined teammates in the dugout howling with laughter after the blooper-reel pitch.

On the mound, though, Chico was stoic as ever. He calmly took a new ball from the umpire and proceeded to throw a strike with his next pitch.

“I remember he got the ball and got right back on the mound,” Hill said. “It was like there was no time in between pitches. I probably would’ve had to step off the mound, compose myself and probably stop myself from laughing. I don’t think I would’ve been able to pull myself together that quickly.”

That moment encapsulated Chico’s rookie season. By all accounts, he should have collapsed somewhere along the way. But he never did. And by season’s end, he was the Nationals’ leader in several pitching categories.

If anyone is worried Chico might change as a sophomore, rest on his accomplishments or relax even the slightest bit, well, clearly that person doesn’t know Matt Chico.

Ask him whether he feels any different now than he did a year ago and he responds with a straight face and the same resolute glare he displayed throughout 2007.

“Not at all,” he said. “I felt the same way coming in last year as I do now.”

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