Nicasio determined in face of neck fracture

Nicasio determined in face of neck fracture

DENVER -- Eleven days ago, Rockies pitcher Juan Nicasio was sprawled out on the mound at Coors Field filled with fear.

On Tuesday, he returned to the stadium sporting a wide grin, that fear replaced by relief and a fierce determination to pitch again.

Less than two weeks after suffering a fractured C-1 vertebra as the result of a line drive to the head off the bat of the Nationals' Ian Desmond -- an injury that stunned members of the baseball community as far as Japan -- Nicasio spoke with the media for the first time.

Wearing a pair of jeans and his No. 44 Rockies jersey, Nicasio, 24, recalled the incident that left him worried he might be paralyzed.

"Thank God I can walk," he said, as assistant clubhouse manager and equipment manager Joe Diaz helped with translation. "But that was my biggest fear, that I wasn't going to be able to walk."

Thanks to the quick actions of Rockies head athletic trainer Keith Dugger and those of the medical staff at Denver Health Medical Center, tragedy was avoided on Aug. 5. Dugger said Nicasio's injury is unprecedented in baseball.

"From my experience, or from what I've learned, it's usually diving accidents in shallow pools or car accidents," Dugger said. "That's the most common way to fracture that vertebrae. A high number of them have paralysis or, unfortunately, [death]."

Said Nicasio: "I feel very lucky. ... God was very lucky with me, because a lot of people who have that injury don't live."

While Nicasio thinks he lost consciousness for a brief moment after being struck by the line drive, he clearly remembers everything that happened during the scary scene, one teammates said made focusing on the rest of the game a near-impossible task.

"I remember I threw a fastball inside, and he hit the line drive at my head," Nicasio said. "I fell in the dirt, and I broke my neck."

Hours after the injury, Nicasio underwent surgery at Denver Health Medical Center, performed by neurosurgeon Peter Witt. Nicasio had two screws inserted into his vertebrae, as well as a small plate in the back of his head to stabilize the area.

It didn't take long after the surgery for Dugger and members of the Rockies' organization to know Nicasio would be determined to recover quickly. The young right-hander watched every Colorado game during his time in the hospital, and he wasn't shy about watching the video of his injury.

"To be honest with you, he saw the injury before I did," Dugger said.

Nicasio said the most difficult part of the ordeal was having to stay in the hospital while the medical staff monitored the internal bleeding he suffered as the result of the line drive.

"The hardest part was the first day after the surgery," Nicasio said. "I wanted to stand up and get out of that hospital."

Nicasio was released from the hospital last Wednesday, just five days after the injury. In the following days, he walked to Coors Field from his Denver apartment. His biggest boost came on Sunday night, when his mother arrived from the Dominican Republic.

"It's a great thing to have my mom here," Nicasio said. "Just having her here makes me feel a lot better."

Nicasio visited his teammates for the first time since the injury on Monday, and he said seeing their reactions to his arrival was also a big lift. The support from Nicasio hasn't been limited to the Rockies' clubhouse, though. Dugger said calls, texts, letters and e-mails have poured in from every Major League team, and from baseball organizations as far away as Japan.

With that swelling of support behind him, Nicasio said he has firmly turned his attention toward making a return to the mound. His rehab process is sure to be challenging, especially since there is no blueprint to follow in terms of his recovery.

"I'm going to have to refer to a lot of outside help on this, to be honest with you," Dugger said. "I just don't know at this point in time. Right now, he has full strength, grip strength.

"There's definitely going to be some atrophy from just being shut down, but my guess is, once he's cleared by the proper doctors, we'll map out [a plan] like we do with any injury and have small goals set for him to reach. Once he reaches one goal, we'll go to the next step. I don't really have a timeframe, because we don't know."

The tentative plan, Dugger said, is to get Nicasio healthy enough to go to the instructional league in Arizona, where he will work on "range-of-motion" exercises. From there, Dugger hopes to accompany Nicasio to an instructional league in the Dominican Republic as early as November. If all goes well, Nicasio could report early to Spring Training.

Before the injury, Nicasio showed flashes of a pitcher the Rockies hoped could become a mainstay in their rotation. In 13 starts after being called up from Double-A Tulsa, he was 4-4 with a 4.14 ERA. So it's only natural that Nicasio wants to do more than just return to the mound. He wants to dominate when he gets there.

"He's already said he's going to be a 20-game winner," Dugger said. "Right now, he has a baseball in his hands at all times."

Nick Kosmider is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.