PITTSBURGH – The Pirates closed out a sweep over the Cardinals tonight, starting the season 3-0 with a 5-1 victory. The biggest takeaway from the night was the debut of Juan Nicasio. It’s way too early to call him the next Ray Searage success story, but based on the stuff he showed tonight, and the results he put up, it’s easy to imagine he’s heading down that path.
Nicasio flashed a fastball that was sitting 95-97, touching 98 MPH in the early innings, along with a slider that was 86-87 MPH and showing a lot of success. That kind of stuff is what you’d expect from a Pirates reclamation project, making it so that the success really isn’t that surprising after the fact.
“I thought he was very aggressive,” Clint Hurdle said after the game. “Good fastball, finished down. He used it up as well. The slider and changeup both played. He used the ball arm side to mix it up.”
Hurdle noted that Nicasio threw first pitch strikes in 14 of 20 at-bats, while only getting to a three ball count twice. He struck out seven batters on the night in six innings of work, and didn’t walk a batter, with the latter number being the most impressive thing. Nicasio has dealt with control problems in the past, and if he can consistently pitch the way he did tonight, with that stuff, he will be in line for a great season.
Nicasio’s only damage tonight came against left-handed hitters, which has been a problem for him in the past. He noted after the game that this is a big focus for him this year, with an increased focus on the changeup.
“I feel like I’ve found my niche, just making sure I’m focusing well on my changeup, and throwing inside,” Nicasio said through team translator Mike Gonzalez.
During Spring Training, Nicasio was showing velocity early, and seeing his numbers drop later in the start. That happened tonight, with his velocity sitting in the 92-94 MPH range in the sixth inning, mostly hitting 94. He’s still got movement on his pitches, but the stuff isn’t as good later in the outing. That’s going to be a focus for him moving forward, with a goal to increase his arm strength.
“My focus has been just working hard to strengthen the arm,” Nicasio said. “Last year I was a bullpen pitcher, and I hadn’t started for a while. Now, being able to start, I wanted to make sure that my arm is strong, and making sure that velocity is maintained at a high volume.”
Nicasio started working with the slider a bit more often later in his outing. He was using the fastball early, and switched to the slider when the Cardinals started expecting the fastball. Hurdle had a short leash on him, getting a reliever up when he reached the 80 pitch mark, and pulling him after six innings and 84 pitches. This is similar to the approach the team took with J.A. Happ in his early starts last year, and the strong bullpen they’ve got this season makes that possible.
Overall, it was a great first start for Nicasio, filled with strong results against a good team, and the stuff to back the numbers up.
“He’s come in on a mission since he’s got here,” Hurdle said. “He wanted the opportunity to get stretched out and see where he could take it. He’s taken it and moved in the starting rotation. We’ll give him every opportunity to continue.”
If it continues like tonight, Nicasio will end up being the next big reclamation project for the Pirates.
The Makings of Another Strong Bullpen
Thanks to a 5-1 lead, the Pirates were able to go with a different approach with their bullpen tonight. Arquimedes Caminero came on to pitch in the seventh inning, and pitched in the eighth as well. Cory Luebke made his first appearance in the majors since April 27th, 2012, working the ninth inning. Despite this, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon were both used, but only for one out each.
Caminero came out firing bullets, hitting 102 MPH with his fastball and 92 MPH with his slider. He’s looked great so far in his first two outings of the year, which was not the case in Spring Training.
“He’s fallen back in the same routine and delivery that he had last year when he was in good stretches,” Hurdle said of the difference. “It’s just not getting carried away. It’s just staying within himself. It’s not about being faster or quicker or harder. It’s having feel of the pitch. When it comes out of his hand, it’s hot. He doesn’t need to generate anything more. He can spin the ball extremely well. Sometimes a two-seamer looks like a cutter that looks like the split. All of it’s got late life and action that goes three different ways.”
Hurdle noted that Caminero’s two-seamer runs inside, the cutter runs away, and the splitter goes down, while topping out at 97-100+ MPH. Caminero noted that he wasn’t at his best early in camp, but is in a much better place now.
“I would say I was getting ready at the beginning. I wasn’t 100%,” Caminero said of Spring Training. “Later on I got ready, and now we’re here. The season begins and you’ve just got to focus on doing your job.”
One of the most impressive moments of the night for Caminero came against Matt Adams in the eighth inning. With a 3-2 count, Caminero went with a backdoor slider which caught the corner at 92 MPH, getting Adams looking for the strikeout. It was a bold pitch selection, but reflected his approach to show confidence in that pitch and treat it like another fastball, giving him another pitch to use when behind in the count.
“I’m trying to stay confident on my breaking balls, because they’re just as effective as my fastball,” Caminero said. “I’ve just got to trust them and throw it a little more.”
What might have been equally impressive was the work that Cory Luebke did in his return to the big leagues. He showed good velocity, sitting 92-95 MPH with his fastball, while mixing in an 86-88 MPH slider. The fastball velocity was impressive, especially when you consider that he never even hit 95 MPH in the past, before two Tommy John surgeries.
“I don’t know if the 95s went where I wanted them to go tonight,” Luebke said. “Honestly, I was blessed, especially the last two years to be surrounded by some therapists and some strength coaches and some trainers that cared as much as I did, and were working as much as I was to get back to this point. I’ve just been blessed to be around a good support group, and some people at the top of their field to help me get back to this point.”
Luebke noted that there were some nerves with his outing tonight, although the command issues he had were ultimately due to the long layoff and the constant rehabbing.
“The command will come,” Luebke said. “In Spring Training, Ray didn’t want to mess with me too much. But we’ve been starting working the last week and a half on some things. Just some bad habits that I’ve developed over three and a half years of rehab and throwing, versus being out on the mound. We’re definitely going in the right direction.”
Having a right-hander throwing 102 MPH with his fastball and 92 MPH with his slider, followed by a lefty throwing 92-95 MPH and upper 80s with his slider is a combo that any team would want at the back of their bullpen. For the Pirates, this combo is actually the reserve late inning group. With Melancon, Watson, and Neftali Feliz as the main relievers in the late innings, Caminero and Luebke become, at best, the fourth and fifth best guys in the bullpen. That’s some amazing depth, and gives the Pirates the ability to be flexible in the late innings, while also having talented pitchers going every night.
**Hurdle on Luebke’s debut: “I would have liked to get everybody in the opening series. It was good to get Cory in. He showed some good finish. He got a ball in on a right-hander. Shows the good breaking ball. Shows some velocity. Just good to get him out there and get that part over with, and now move forward with him.”
**John Jaso hit a triple off the Clemente Wall, thanks to a poor read on the ball by Stephen Piscotty. It almost went for a home run, although it didn’t really matter in the end. The throw to third base was wild and went in the dugout, allowing Jaso to score the Little League home run.
“I was thinking homer out of the chute,” Jaso said of his approach on the play. “I got the triple call, and I saw another guy on our team do it, so I thought ‘why not?'”
**Jaso on Nicasio’s stuff tonight: “Just watching him all Spring Training has been awesome. I could think of a couple times he’s started, and I’m just happy to be behind him instead of in the box against him. It’s great to see that has kind of carried over from Spring Training into the season.”
**Jaso on the series: “It seems like everybody has pitched in this whole series. I’ve got to say the pitchers have done a great job. When it comes to the lineup, it seems like everybody one through nine has really done a great job.”
**Gregory Polanco was crushing the ball the first two games of this series, with three hits that were 109 MPH or harder off the bat. Tonight he took a different approach, showing off his plate patience and drawing three walks. The hard hitting could lead to a breakout this year, but the walk rate is equally as important, especially with the Pirates putting so much focus on OBP this year.
**The Pirates had a .390 OBP in this series, which as of this writing, ranks first in the NL and second in the majors. It’s very early, but they’re off to a good start with the new approach. They’ve also been getting a lot of long innings, including tonight’s first inning where Mike Leake threw 41 pitches.
**The Pirates have an off-day tomorrow, and will head to Cincinnati on Friday for a three game series against the Reds. Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Jeff Locke will be the starters in the series.