HOUSTON -- Juan Nicasio didn't have much time to play baseball while growing up in the Dominican Republic. He didn't have time to dream of the game, or dream of anything, since his day started so early. "I worked with the cows on the farm, milking cows every day and working with my father," Nicasio said. "I played baseball with my friends, but I worked too much and didn't have time to play on a team. I didn't pitch. I played the outfield. I didn't start pitching until I was 18, going on 19." But when Nicasio, 25, takes the mound for the Rockies against the Astros on Sunday afternoon, it will be the culmination of a miracle story born of a near tragedy. Last Aug. 5, Nicasio was hit in the head by a line drive from the Nationals' Ian Desmond and suffered a fractured skull and shattered C-1 vertebrae. It wasn't clear whether he would live or walk or pitch again, but he decisively won a job in the Rockies' rotation.
The fact that Nicasio pitched in a Major League game at any point in his life is almost as remarkable as his comeback. Players in the Dominican Republic are not subject to the First-Year Player Draft, so teams comb the land for talent they can sign -- the younger, the better. "A lot of people in the Dominican would have said, 'No, don't play baseball. You're too old,'" Nicasio said. "To be signed in the Dominican, you have to be 17, 16. I was too old. When you're 18, 19, 20, it's hard to sign." So it turns out that 49-year-old left-hander Jamie Moyer, who started on Saturday night, isn't the only age story in purple pinstripes. In addition to raising dairy cows, Nicasio's father planted coffee beans. Nicasio speaks with a farmer's pride with a simple recollection of the water-swamped rice paddy. "It's beautiful," he said. But Nicasio had a baseball-playing cousin, Gustavo Jimenez, a third baseman who spent time at the Tigers' complex in the Dominican Republic. To give Nicasio a break, Jimenez would invite him to play catch or throw batting practice. "He'd tell me, 'Go with me to the field and throw,'" Nicasio said. "Every morning I'd throw with him, and he'd say, 'You got a good arm, man.'" Jimenez, who now is looking at independent ball, found out about a Rockies tryout camp and drove Nicasio. Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies' vice president of international scouting, saw potential. "He told me, OK, go to the complex,'" Nicasio said. "He told the coaches, 'Hey, look at this guy. Maybe he changes mechanics, and you never know?' They worked with me for two weeks. They told me to throw long toss." The Rockies signed Nicasio on Aug. 21, 2006, and brought him to U.S. to play in the Minor Leagues the next year. In 2010, Nicasio struck out 171 in 177 1/3 innings at Class A Modesto and was on his way. After 28 starts last year at Double-A Tulsa, Nicasio had 58 strikeouts against 18 walks in 71 2/3 innings, and he was promoted to the Majors. He was 4-4 with a 4.14 ERA in 13 starts before the injury. This year Nicasio went 2-0 with a 3.90 ERA in six Spring Training appearances. "Juan Nicasio is way past what took place last year," manager Jim Tracy said. "Juan Nicasio's mind is not only on pitching for us, but pitching successfully." Nicasio is happy with his fastball and says that his slider and changeup are works in progress. But one reason he's able to withstand the work is the hard days on the farm. He thanks the cows for his impressive forearms. "You have to be strong," he said. But it took a different kind of strength to work his way through the injury, rehab and pitching progression to return to the Major League mound on Sunday. "I'm going to think it's the same game in Spring Training -- throw my fastball for a strike, my slider, my breaking ball," he said. "It's the same game. I don't want to change. "But sometimes when I'm in my hotel, I'd think, 'Oh, my, it's unbelievable. Eight months ago, I broke my neck. Now I'm back. It's crazy."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.