Chacin navigated long road to Opening Day

Right-hander hopes to meet former expectations, lead Rockies to surprising 2013

Chacin navigated long road to Opening Day
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When reminded that experts don't think much of the Rockies' starting pitching, right-hander Jhoulys Chacin says he's too busy plotting the team's route to the postseason. He smiles when he says that, and doesn't laugh. He's not joking.

After his 2012, Chacin, who will open 2013 against the Brewers on Monday afternoon at Miller Park, is entitled to happy optimism. The Rockies can use that after enduring a 64-98 season -- worst in club history.

"When we get together, we just care about us, and we trust ourselves," Chacin said. "If we go out and show what we can do, and stay healthy, I know we can do this. We can play way better than last year and do special things. We care what we think.

"Look what happened in '07 [the team's only World Series trip, a year after a 76-86 finish]. Nobody even knew who the Rockies were and look what happened. If we stay healthy -- that's something only God can control -- we know we can make the playoffs and get to the World Series."

Last year at this time, it seemed Chacin barely had a prayer for success.

Just before Spring Training, his offseason conditioning was questioned publicly by Rockies top baseball official Dan O'Dowd. It spiraled when his velocity and effectiveness dipped mysteriously, and the club planned to demote him to the Minors with an 0-3 record and 7.30 ERA through five starts. Finally, nerve damage in the right side of a chest muscle was diagnosed.

The year turned much brighter when Chacin returned in August. The Rockies were in the midst of their questioned use of a four-man rotation with a limit of around 75 pitches or no more than twice through the batting order, whichever came first. The team scrapped the plan by season's end, but little did anyone know it would unlock Chacin's potential.

Chacin was named MiLB.com starting pitcher of the year in 2008, when he went a combined 18-3 with a 2.03 ERA at two Class A stops, and he was in the Majors before the end of the following year. However, Chacin's Minor League success was based on a strong changeup and slider, not fastball command. Big league hitters struggled just as much with his offspeed pitch, but they simply waited for him to throw a fastball that he hadn't learned to locate.

Last year, knowing he had to settle at-bats quickly to have any chance of pitching long enough to win games, Chacin was more aggressive and more effective with his fastball than at any point as a pro.

He best displayed his development on Sept. 1 against the Padres, when he needed just 74 pitches to go seven innings, struck out four and held the Padres to five hits, two walks and one run in a 9-1 victory at Coors Field.

"When you had 75 pitches, last year the only thing you had to do was try to get quick outs," said Chacin, who went 3-2 with a 2.84 ERA in nine starts after returning from the injury. "That was my approach -- a lot of fastballs and sinkers. Throw strikes and make them swing the bat."

The Rockies need his aggression against the Brewers on Monday.

The Brewers' Nos. 2-5 hitters are expected to be full of right-handed pop -- Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucry. Carlos Gomez, who experienced back issues late in spring but is expected to be healthy, figures to provide right-handed power from the seventh spot. Chacin has limited righty hitters to a .224 average in his career.

Chacin has been experimenting much of the spring, at times trying to hide his true pitching plan from hitters, especially those in the National league West. He worried Rockies faithful by finishing spring 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA with 25 hits and four homers against -- although he struck out 10 against four wals. Yet manager Walt Weiss believes Chacin will be his hard-to-hit self in real competition.

The Rockies added right-hander Jon Garland near the end of the spring to be a steadying influence, but they look at Chacin as the headliner.

"He's ready," Weiss said. "It's a great accomplishment, coming off an injury, fighting his way all the way back to being an Opening Day starter, something to be very proud of.

"He knows that along with being a No. 1 guy, there's responsibility that goes along with that. But the little I've been around him, he comes across as a very mature kid for his age."

In addition to his spring work, Chacin pitched once for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. He pitched better than the result -- five hits and four runs in 3 1/3 innings of a loss to the Dominican Republic. More important, he had a chance to work with former Major League pitcher Wilson Alvarez, the Venezuelan pitching coach. Alvarez noticed a flaw in Chacin's fastball and invited him to work with him this offseason, and they furthered their work during the Classic.

"I appreciate what he did for me," Chacin said. "He didn't have to do it, but he's from Maracaibo (as is Chacin) and he likes to help people."

Chacin enters the season a career 23-31, but his 3.68 ERA is second lowest in club history for a pitcher who has made at least 50 starts, to Ubaldo Jimenez's 3.66. Chacin's .238 overall average against is bested only by Jimenez's .231.

Chacin hinted at stardom in 2011, his first wire-to-wire Major League season, when he went 8-4 with a 2.81 ERA through his first 14 starts. But a struggle with forearm tightness began a period of inconsistency, and he finished the year 11-14 with a 3.62 ERA in 31 starts. The Rockies hope he has reached a stage of maturity and durability.

"He's still a young guy but he has grown every year, and all his struggles last year were a good thing for a young guy," said outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, a fellow Venezuelan. "He knows he needs to force himself to be better. He has a bigger responsibility with this team, and it's going to force him to have more concentration and work to be better for his team."

Chacin said he holds no grudge against the Rockies for questioning his conditioning before last season, saying they were "trying to make me better, get my head stronger."

O'Dowd said in retrospect he should have spoken to Chacin directly, rather than express his views publicly. But he is happy with the pitcher's response.

"This kid's got tremendous ability," O'Dowd said. "He's a great kid. Now we just need him to perform up to his capabilities." He hopes to show that he is the right guy to be a staff leader.

"I want to get everybody on the same page, get everybody excited and confident," said Chacin, 25, who will be making his first career Opening Day start. "Don't worry, whether you're pitching in Coors Field or San Diego. Have the same approach, try to pitch to contact.

"It's an honor for me to be able to pitch Opening Day but I want to help the team by throwing a lot of innings -- my goal is 200. We want to all keep pushing each other. It's really nice to be the guy, but I want me, [and veteran left-handers] Jeff Francis and [Jorge] De La Rosa to push each other."

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.