Nicasio shows encouraging signs as Rox gain ground
Right-hander earns second straight victory for first time in career
DENVER -- The Rockies' offense returned in Saturday night's 9-3 victory against the Cubs, though that's not exactly news. But right-hander Juan Nicasio winning his second straight start was new and different.
Nicasio (6-4) held the Cubs to one run on three hits in five powerful, if not totally efficient, innings at Coors Field in front of 45,616, which witnessed him win consecutive starts for the first time in his 42-start career.
"The thing I liked about Juan tonight was he didn't have his best command early, he labored a little bit," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "He settled in enough to keep them in check and only give up one run through five."
All-Star Carlos Gonzalez clubbed his 26th home run of the season; Todd Helton added three hits, including his 578th career double (tying with Wade Boggs for 18th all-time); and Dexter Fowler had a two-run triple and drove in three runs as the Rockies finished with 13 hits. They had gone 11 games without scoring more than five runs, although they had played most of the games on the road and faced a parade of top pitchers.
Saturday's performance came on the heels of the Rockies being dominated for 7 1/3 innings by Cubs starter Jeff Samardzjia in a 3-1 loss Friday night in the opener of a 10-game homestand out of the All-Star break.
"We do a good job of putting the tough losses behind us and showing up the next day like nothing happened, having short memories," Helton said. "It's been said lately that July is the toughest month, and it truly is. But the teams that can remain focused and energized are the teams that put themselves in good position."
But Nicasio was the revelation of the night.
The performance was not at the level of his last start, when he held the Dodgers scoreless on three hits in seven innings in his return from a two-start demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs. But Nicasio didn't fall into the traps that he did during his beginning to the season, when he tried to be perfect instead of relying on his power.
"When I went down to Triple-A, I told a couple people I needed to clear my mind," Nicasio said. "Before, when I'd have a lead, I'd be careful. Now, I throw a fastball in the middle. Whatever, hit it. Just throw a fastball down."
Nicasio struggled through a 28-pitch first inning and walked Junior Lake to open the second. But from there, he passed a couple of key tests that could mean Nicasio, whose career started with injury-shortened seasons in 2011 and '12, can be counted on as the Rockies (47-51) attempt to make up ground in the National League West.
The Rockies moved to 3 1/2 games behind the NL West-leading (but slumping) D-backs and, possibly more importantly, three behind the second-place (but surging) Dodgers.
Cubs leadoff man Luis Valbuena hit his ninth homer of the season with one out in the third, but Nicasio put down the inning with no further fanfare.
"In the first inning, I felt a little lazy with my shoulder and my elbow," Nicasio said. "After the second inning, I was feeling good, more command of my fastball. I worked a little faster."
The Rockies scored three runs in the fourth against Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva, who gave up seven runs and nine hits in four-plus innings and owns an 11.57 ERA in 13 appearance against the Rockies. Helton singled, Wilin Rosario doubled and Nolan Arenado pushed Helton home with a grounder. Nicasio drew a walk, then Fowler tripled on a full count for a 3-1 lead.
"I tried some things different today," Villanueva said. "It seemed to work somewhat the first couple innings, but it's a team that's given me trouble throughout my career for some reason."
The Fowler triple broke the game open, but the two-out walk to Nicasio made the damage possible.
"That kind of changed the game around a little, walking him on a 3-2 slider and throwing Fowler a 3-2 fastball," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "That's a little backward. It turned the whole momentum around in the whole game."
Nicasio didn't give away the lead. He put down No. 8 hitter Welington Castillo on a fly ball, struck out Villanueva and forced Valbuena to ground out.
At 93 pitches on a team that doesn't like starters throwing more than 100, that was it for Nicasio. While the Rockies would rather see him go deeper, there still wasn't the meltdown that would occur during the early days of the season.
That's why he was demoted to Colorado Springs in the first place. Nicasio, who skipped Triple-A when he was called up in 2011, worked with Sky Sox pitching coach Dave Schuler, whom Nicasio knew from the low minors.
"Schuler spent 10 days working with me, throwing bullpens and long toss," Nicasio said. "He showed me video from [Double-A] Tulsa and high-A ball. He told me, 'Before, you had good extension. Now you're not finishing pitches.' I'm working on that."
Gonzalez's leadoff homer into the second deck in right opened a four-run fifth.
"That was a good swing," Gonzalez said. "Soon as I hit the ball, I knew that was out of the ballpark. I didn't know where it was going to land, but it was going to go pretty far."