Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chico ready, Flores isn't

VIERA, Fla. -- We'll get to today's home opener against the Mets in a little while. But first let's address two players coming back from injuries: one who is ready to start appearing in exhibition games, one who isn't.

Matt Chico is slated to throw two innings out of the bullpen tomorrow in Port St. Lucie. It may not seem like that big a deal, but for Chico, the butterflies are already flapping their wings in his stomach, more than 24 hours before he's due to pitch.

"I'm not really nervous, but it's that kind of nervous excitement to be back out there and be able to fight for a spot," he said. "Hopefully I can just go out there and calm myself down once I get out there, get that first pitch out of the way."

This will be the left-hander's first appearance against big-league hitters since May 2008, before he realized the lingering pain in his elbow would require reconstructive surgery. In the nearly two years since Tommy John surgery, Chico has worked his way back, re-learned how to pitch, spent the second half of last season at Class AA Harrisburg and now has returned to big-league camp hoping to win a spot in the Opening Day rotation.

He's already turned a lot of heads this spring. His arm 100 percent healthy for the first time in years, he's throwing harder than ever before and with no limitations. At the moment, he said his fastball is probably in the 87 mph range, but it was topping 90 mph at the end of last season and he hopes it will be back to that level by the end of this month. Now, a pitcher who felt he had to rely too much on his offspeed stuff back in 2007-08 is confident enough in his fastball to utilize it as his bread-and-butter pitch.

"I'm very anxious to see him," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I didn't see him last year. I didn't see him in his rookie year when other people said he did such a good job. He's really earned it, and he's really worked hard to get back to this point. He's just a real pro. I really admire this guy. He walks around, doesn't say much, just a very respectful guy to the other players. He really paid his dues to get back here."

Riggleman isn't sure when or whether Chico will get to start a Grapefruit League game, though the manager insisted he's in the running for a rotation spot. The Nationals do have far more starters in the mix than available spots, so for now they're doubling up certain guys. For example, yesterday Miguel Batista started and Craig Stammen relieved. Next week, they're likely to flip-flop. ...

Now, the guy who isn't ready to start playing in games: Jesus Flores. The catcher, coming back from shoulder surgery, still is progressing at a meticulous rate. He's throwing from as much as 120 feet, but the club isn't taking any chances pushing him too hard too fast.

Asked if there's a chance he could be ready to appear in a game before the end of the spring, Flores said: "No chance." Not that we didn't already know he's destined to open the season on the DL, but here is yet another indication of how far he still has to go. When the rest of his teammates break camp and head north in April, Flores will stay in Viera and work out with the rest of the rehabbing guys at extended spring training.

"It's really frustrating," he said. "I wish I could play. But I have to make sure I'm 100 percent first. I don't want to play half the season and then get injured again."


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