SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Juan Nicasio needs no reminders of the frightening line drive last summer that fractured his skull, broke his neck and nearly killed him.
The Colorado Rockies’ stocky right-hander got one anyway.
In his first start since that game on Aug. 5, when Washington’s Ian Desmond scorched a fastball off his right temple, Oakland’s second hitter, Eric Sogard, sent a heater whizzing by Nicasio’s head in the first inning of the Athletics’ 6-4 win Friday.
“It was close. I said, ‘Oh (shoot)!” Nicasio recounted. “Oh my God, it was close to me. But I don’t think about it.”
After wiping his brow and taking a deep breath, Nicasio got back on the mound and seemed unfazed by the close call. He threw three impressive innings, scattering five singles, allowing one unearned run, walking none and striking out two.
Nicasio threw in an intrasquad game earlier in the week, his first action without an “L” screen to protect him, and the Rockies were eager to see if he’d be shy Friday, recoiling or cutting off his follow through to protect himself because of what happened to him.
“I see no sign of that whatsoever,” Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. “That’s so encouraging to see.”
Tracy, himself, cringed at the comebacker, though.
“I can’t really tell you how I felt about the baptism by fire, if you will, when I saw that one line drive go back through the middle. I mean, it didn’t take very long for that to happen,” Tracy said. “But, actually, maybe a good thing as we move forward. But I can tell you this, the ball was coming out of his hand big-time. The slider, it’s there.”
He threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 13 batters he faced, and his fastball topped out at 94 mph.
Nicasio, who went 4-4 with a 4.14 ERA and 58 strikeouts with 18 walks as a rookie last year before he got hurt, is trying to make the Rockies’ rotation just eight months after the accident that landed him in the hospital for 11 days and had doctors — who usually see fractures of the C-1 vertebra in diving or auto accident patients — wondering if he’d ever walk again, much less pitch in the majors.
Nicasio, who never lost consciousness when he got hurt last summer, said he had no flashbacks, even when Sogard sent the screamer whizzing past him.
“Yeah, I’m not thinking about what happened last year,” Nicasio said. “I’m not thinking nothing about that. Now, it’s a new season, you know? I don’t think about last year.”
Everyone around him still does.
“I think I’m thinking about it way more than him,” shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “It seems like he’s past it and moved on. It is a good story. I mean, it’s crazy to me.”
“It was amazing, it’s nice to see that guy going back to the mound after all that stuff that he went through,” slugger Carlos Gonzalez said. “This guy’s a tough guy. It’s not easy to do what he’s doing right now. He’s a competitor. He’s unbelievable.”
Tulowitzki said he was awed by Nicasio even before the game.
“Today we started off with what we call rag-smash, it’s basically pitchers fielding comebackers, and he made it to the finals,” Tulowitzki said. “That was impressive to me. I was thinking for a guy to be last year on the field just laid out on the mound from a line-drive comebacker … it speaks volumes about how fearless of a kid he really is.
“And then to see him take the mound today, there was some balls hit hard back up the middle. Just to see him attack the strike zone even after those things happened is pretty impressive,” Tulowitzki added.
Brandon McCarthy allowed two earned runs on four hits in 4 2-3 innings for Oakland, and Jerry Blevins picked up the win by retiring the only batter he faced.
Tulowitzki hit two doubles and scored twice off McCarthy to put the Rockies ahead 2-1 before the Athletics rallied for four runs off Tyler Chatwood in three innings.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin said Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes will make his first start Saturday against Cincinnati. He’ll bat second and play center field in his spring training debut.
“We’re just looking forward to seeing him out there and being part of the team and doing some things in the game,” Melvin said. “That’s all part of the camaraderie and chemistry. So, I think he’s looking forward to that, too.”
Notes: DH Manny Ramirez will also return to the Athletics’ lineup Saturday. … This was the only meeting between Oakland and Colorado this spring. … Rockies new closer Rafael Betancourt returned from a stiff neck that had sidelined him for a few days by throwing a 1-2-3 ninth.
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