SARASOTA, Fla. – When a 29-year-old free-agent pitcher with a 4.88 career ERA signs a one-year, $3 million contract, it isn’t going to be the lead story on SportsCenter. But when Juan Nicasio signed that deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates this winter, you know who noticed?
People in front offices all over baseball.
Because he throws 95 mph. Because he has a wipeout slider to go with it. And because, let’s face it, this is the Pirates.
“Everybody talks about, `You go here, you get better,’” Nicasio said Wednesday after maybe the most eye-popping outing by any pitcher for any team this spring. “I know why now.”
More on that in a moment. But first ... Nicasio’s box-score line in his start Wednesday against the Baltimore Orioles was one that has never been compiled in any regular-season game in the history of baseball. Ready? Here it comes:
4 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 0 walks, 10 strikeouts.
“That kind of outing,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, “will get your attention.”
Uh, that’s for sure. You don’t see many double-digit strikeout games in spring training, period. But in this one, Nicasio faced just 14 hitters. He struck out 10 of them. Yeah, it was the Orioles. Yeah, they’re a threat to strike out, like, 2,000 times this year. But still.
“I feel really good today,” Nicasio said afterward, wearing a smile almost as wide as the Sunshine Skyway.
And of course he did. But not as good as the Pirates felt about him.
They signed him in December, a week after the Los Angeles Dodgers opted not to tender him a contract. And days like this were exactly what the folks in Pittsburgh had in mind. They saw a fellow with a big arm, an often-unhittable breaking ball and a set of numbers on the back of his baseball card that looked all out of whack because he spent his first four seasons in Colorado.
“I’ve got history there,” said Hurdle, who once managed the Rockies for eight seasons. “So I know how hard it can be to pitch there. And I think, within our industry, there’s different ways to look at guys who have pitched there. We liked the man. We liked the strength. We liked some of the indicators as we dug deeper. We really liked the resilience, the perseverance, some things the guy fought through, the makeup and the pitch-ability factor.”
So the Pirates looked past Nicasio’s 5.23 ERA at Coors Field because, well, that’s what they do. And now Nicasio looks poised to go where Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ, Mark Melancon and so many other live arms have gone before him:
From a career of ups, downs and frustration to a whole new career of newfound success in Pittsburgh, thanks to the miracle-working ways of pitching coach Ray Searage.
“When you have a good pitching coach,” Nicasio said, “you feel comfortable. . . . Sometimes you have a pitching coach and he’s never talking with you. But when you have a pitching coach who tries to take care of you, in your sides, in your bullpens, you’re feeling comfortable that this guy, he’s helping me to be better.”
And that is a big part of Searage’s reputation. Keeps it simple. Stays upbeat. And that’s exactly what Nicasio heard about him from his new teammate, Liriano, over the winter.
Nicasio said that before he signed with the Pirates, Liriano called him and said: “We’ve got a great pitching coach here.” And Nicasio is now the latest member of Searage’s fan club.
“I like him because he’s fun,” Nicasio said. “You know what I mean? He’s laughing all the time. He jokes around with me. You throw a good pitch, and he’s happy. (So) I’m feeling happy, when I throw a good pitch and he’s happy, too. He’s screaming every pitch. And I’m happy for him.”
In Nicasio’s case, Searage hasn’t had to make any dramatic mechanical changes. They’ve mostly just focused on refining Nicasio’s approach and building confidence, after a career in which he has never quite had the success to match his stuff.
But what got the Pirates’ attention at this moment in time was the way Nicasio adapted to the bullpen last season after a trade to the Dodgers. In particular, he dominated right-handed hitters, holding them to a .226/.298/.335 slash line, with 49 strikeouts and only 35 hits allowed in 174 plate appearances.
“This guy’s got experience doing both (starting and relieving),” Hurdle said. “And that’s one of the things that attracted us to him. And also the fact that he pitched so well out of the bullpen last year after having had some challenges in the starting rotation in Colorado. He maintained velocity today for four innings, on a very hot day. . . . I just think he’s in a really good place, as far as having endurance, having stamina, building on that. The mentality is to be aggressive on the next pitch. Where that takes you, who knows?”
Where the Pirates thought it would take Nicasio, when they signed him, was a pivotal role as a multi-inning reliever, on a staff where no one except Gerrit Cole and Liriano are expected to pitch deep into games. But after days like this, it gives everyone a reason to take a step back and wonder if he might be even more of a weapon as a starter.
“I’m working hard for the rotation,” Nicasio admitted. “But I can’t control all that.”
His manager can, of course. But at this point, he’s not committing to anything, other than to say, “We’re going to play it out.”
Opening Day is 2 ½ weeks away. And once again, the Pirates have a pitcher whose arrow appears ready to point upward. Maybe even way upward. So stay tuned.