DENVER -- Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio realizes all questions about fastball command, confidence in secondary pitches and two-strike efficiency lead to one large question: Why is he still here? He also understands now is the time to provide positive answers.
In six starts entering Wednesday night's outing against the Yankees, Nicasio is 3-0 with a 4.91 ERA, but just once has he completed six innings. The righty's last start, when he was handed a 5-3 lead but was so inefficient he was removed after four innings and 96 pitches, left fans and the media wondering if Nicasio was a candidate to be sent down to Triple-A Colorado Springs -- a level he skipped on his way to the Majors in 2011.
However, when Jhoulys Chacin returned from a back injury, the Rockies optioned the guy who replaced him, Tyler Chatwood, who had gone 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in two starts. Now, against the Yankees, Nicasio has a chance to prove his worth.
"I know I haven't done the job; I know how the big leagues work," Nicasio said. "But I know I can throw more than five innings. I need [to pitch] better, quick."
Nicasio has recorded 20 strikeouts and 15 walks in 29 1/3 innings. Often, the issue is that Nicasio gets two strikes on a batter but lacks the ability to put him away. Veteran hitters are able to foul off pitch after pitch and often work a walk.
Nicasio can help his efficiency by either finding a more effective way to use his strikeout pitch or forcing more ground balls, which is the M.O. the Rockies prefer for their pitchers. The right-hander's four-seam fastball, which has movement but is not always low enough in the strike zone, is his best pitch. Nicasio does have confidence in his slider, but his changeup, a pitch he barely used last year, is one that he hasn't used with full confidence. Whatever pitch he chooses, Nicasio is looking to settle counts quicker.
"If my fastball is down and it moves, I can have a lot of ground balls, but right now, I don't quite have command of my fastball," Nicasio said. "Right now, I get to two strikes and I try to do too much with my fastball or throw breaking balls in the dirt.
"I looked at my 2011 video, and I went after hitters with two strikes. Now, I'm being careful. Now, I want to go no more than four pitches for a hitter. That's the mentality that I'm working on."
Manager Walt Weiss likes Nicasio's heavy fastball and believes that developing his other pitches will help the 24-year-old use his fastball to the fullest.
"The slider is a good pitch for him," Weiss said. "He didn't throw as many changeups his last time out. His confidence has been growing with the changeup. That's the one that, if he gets more confidence in throwing that pitch, it'll give him more wiggle room with his fastball."
Chatwood threw a complete-game four-hitter on Tuesday in Colorado Springs' 5-0 victory over the Iowa Cubs at Colorado Springs. It was the first shutout for a Colorado Springs starter since Brandon Hynick threw a seven-inning perfect game against Portland on June 30, 2009.
It also was the first home shutout -- Colorado Springs plays at an altitude even higher than that of Coors Field -- for the Sky Sox since 2003.
Help from lineup has Cuddyer producing
DENVER -- Last year, the effect of outfielder/first baseman Michael Cuddyer on the Rockies was muted. An oblique strain in July and a lengthy adjustment to the National League after he spent 11 years with the Twins slowed the veteran slugger.
This year, Cuddyer is flying, to the tune of a .333 average with seven home runs, eight doubles and 24 RBIs going into Tuesday night's opener of a three-game set with the Yankees at Coors Field. He finished last season with a .260 batting average, a dropoff from his .272 career mark, but he had 16 home runs, 30 doubles and two triples.
Cuddyer, a proven run producer on contending Twins teams, said the Rockies' lineup -- he usually hits behind Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki -- has given him lots of opportunities.
"The big thing is feeding off everybody else," Cuddyer said. "A whole lot goes into it. Pitchers are now worried about everybody in the lineup. They don't want to make mistakes to certain guys, and end up making mistakes. You don't want to be the guy to stop the train from moving. And a lot of it is good hitting, and some of it is luck. I've had a few infield hits, too."
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.