SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- This time, Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio looked as if he was coming off an injury.
Last spring, Nicacio returned from a broken neck the previous year and worked his way into the team's starting rotation. However, his season ended with a left knee injury that he suffered in June. On Sunday, he made his first appearance since, and was blistered to the tune of four runs, two earned, and four hits in 1 2/3 innings of the Rockies' 8-6 loss to the D-backs.
Nicasio, 26, who works hard down in the strike zone but is at the learning stage when it comes to secondary pitches, hardly fooled anyone.
He entered in the third inning with no score and ended the frame with just one hit against him, but three balls were hit hard. In the fourth, which was marred in part by shortstop Reid Brignac's throwing error, Jason Kubel, Eric Hinske and Cliff Pennington all had hits before Nicasio was removed for right-hander Parker Frazier to keep him from throwing too many pitches.
"He was trying to find a feel -- he hadn't pitched in seven months," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "I know he was working on his secondary stuff. So it was a combination of things that put him in some tough counts."
Nicasio flung his fastball plateward at 96 mph, but Sunday showed why he needs more than that.
Nicasio underwent emergency, possibly life-saving, surgery on his neck after he was hit in the head by a line drive from the Nationals' Ian Desmond on Aug. 5, 2011. He suffered the second injury trying to field a hard-hit ball through the mound last June, and ended up undergoing microfracture surgery.
This year, the right-hander comes into camp being counted on for a rotation that is young and thin. But Nicasio is still at the proving stage of his career, and will have to pitch well to keep from being overtaken either by one of the starters in camp or an acquisition from the outside. Because of the two major injuries, Nicasio has made just 24 Major League starts (6-7, 4.65 ERA).
He missed the zone with both his curveball and his still-developing changeup -- a pitch he hasn't used much at all in the Majors. Those pitches missed low to the point that hitters didn't honor them. His fastball rises, which would be fine if his other pitches are hitting their spots.
Nicasio has succeeded with his slider, although it can be hittable when he misses. If he develops a changeup that he can spot on both sides of the plate -- something he believes he can accomplish -- he'll prove the Rockies' confidence in him correct. If not, his upside as a starter could be limited.
The goal Sunday was to work on the changeup.
"I could command my fastball, but my breaking ball a couple of times went in the dirt -- and my changeup," Nicasio said. "I need to throw them for strikes. And with my changeup, I want to throw it behind [in the count], down in the zone."
Veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez said he made it a point to call the changeup so Nicasio could work on it, and eventually develop confidence in it. Hernandez called it when Nicasio was ahead in the count Sunday, because the pitch is still a work in progress.
"This is the place for doing it," Hernandez said. "He's got to work on it at lot. He's got a ways to go, but just keep working on it, trying his best, and he's going to be OK.
"The slider is good. He had some trouble with it because it was the first time he pitched since he got hurt. He might be a little anxious -- sometimes you overdo things. But there's no problem with it. Right now, he's got to keep working on the changeup."
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.