Juan Nicasio Has a Great Debut as the Pirates Sweep the Cardinals

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.

Other Notes

**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.

  • Poor Phils fans. I’m sure they, like we did so many, many times, got sucked into Chuck’s first three innings thinking they got a steal.

    And then Chuck happened.

    First three innings: 42 pitches, 1 hit (a double), 1 walk, 3 Ks, 5 ground balls, 1 fly ball. So he’s given up one earned run in first three with a good pitch count.

    Fourth inning: 0.2 IP, 26 pitches, 4 hits (3 singles and a HR), 1 walk, 0 Ks, 1 grounder, 1 fly, 5 ER.

    I really do feel bad for the guy.

  • HartHighPirate
    April 7, 2016 7:07 pm

    I like to keep things in perspective. Not only was it a great game for Nicas

  • Bridgevillebuck
    April 7, 2016 6:15 pm

    If the season ended today. The Pirates would be in a one game playoff with the Cubs based on alphabetical order.

  • Juan Nicasio is a wonderful story last night and I had a feeling the Cardinals were in for some work but I think the bigger story is this change to OBP w our lineup. They averaged 5 runs a game against one of the best pitching trios in the league and we finally got the best of Leake and pounded Wacha! So much for power! GO PEDRO….NOT!!!!

    • Alvarez: .375 OBP
      Jaso: .250 OBP

      Clearly the Pirates have made a mistake.

      • Get the pitchforks out, we be storming NH’s office.

        Rat bastard.

        • Joking aside, no Pirates starter saw more fastballs or more pitches in the zone through the opening series than Jaso. Sure seems like the Cards had his MO down from the first pitch of the season.

          Fantastic adjustment on his part to jump on that 2-0 fastball in his last at bat of the series, even if it was actually a ball. I want patiently aggressive, not Ike Davis.

          • Yeah it’ll be interesting going forward.

            Though I do think the idea that you pepper him with FBs is high risk, since he’s a good enough hitter to not just continue taking a ton of them for 1-2 strikes.

      • Pedro is a walking machine all of the sudden. 3 walks in his 1st 8 at-bats! Who knew? Haha! Those numbers w flip-flip shortly. Once he settles in, Jaso will be running up pitch counts more. Now if we had a DH, Pedro would still be a Pirate and he could focus solely on the batters box but OH WELL! He’s still hitless by the way!

  • Ray Searage contract extension candidate. Just do it! 🙂

  • Seems easy to beat the cards but the Pirates have to beat Cincy and the Brewers to improve on last year’s win total. Lets hope it starts tomorrow.

  • I think it is too early to call this a strong bullpen. At the moment, it only looks four deep (Caminiero, Feliz, Watson, and Melancon). I think Hurdle backed up this assessment by his usage, quick hooks, and usage of Watson and Melancon in all three games. He clearly avoided Vogelsong, utilized Lobstein only for emergency extra innings, and tried to give Leubke an inning in a “blowout”.
    Something to keep an eye on as Hurdle can keep leaning on Watson and Melancon this hard

    • Once Hughes comes back, they will be 5 deep on your assessment. Lobster proved to be a good long reliever but the Pirates will have to rely on Vogelsong after Lobster gets sent down next week.

    • Once Hughes comes back, they will be 5 deep on your assessment. Lobstein proved to be a good long reliever but the Pirates will have to rely on Vogelsong after Lobstein gets sent down next week.

    • “Only 4 deep”

      Well, yeah thats most bullpens. You get beyond the best 4 guys and its more filler/situational options. Most teams struggle to find 3 they can consistently go to late in games and feel confident about.

      You’ve got a premier 8-9 situation, and 2 more arms able to go earlier/on off days. Throw in a healthy Hughes and its one of the deeper bullpens you’ll find. Hell, STL has one heck of a pen and we showed every bit of depth as they did.

      Caminero throws 100 with a 92 slider, and we use him as a backup 7th inning guy.

      • Let’s ease up on the Caminero narrative; it’s like after one series everyone has forgotten how hittable that fastball has been.

        • Certainly not asserting he’s a back end arm, consistency stops that from being a reality.

          But this guy as your 4th arm is somewhat rare. Even with a flat fastball, his stuff is better than most mid relief arms.

    • Agreed a little too soon, and Melancon’s outings so far haven’t been stellar.

      Looking around at the teams the Pirates are competing against, the Bucs have options and upside, but some of the options are little short on recent track record. I’m worried if Melancon can produce another .220 BABIP against his cutter, throwing it 2 mph slower than 2013-14.

      • A 4th consecutive season of Watson and Melancon *both* being FIP-beating workhorses would have to be damn near unprecedented.

        • A good portion of the FIP beating is the lack of typical platoon splits, more generally having two near elite workhorses in the same bullpen for that four straight seasons is rare.

  • Scott Kliesen
    April 7, 2016 7:56 am

    A sweep of the Cardinals, without Cole pitching, to start the season. Yeah, that’s pretty damn impressive!

    • After one series, the St Louis Cardinals lead Major League Baseball in strikeouts and errors.

      The St Louis Cardinals.

      • Scott Kliesen
        April 7, 2016 8:51 am


        But I do think their winter of discontent has bled into Spring. If they’re not careful they could dig themselves too big of a hole to climb out of.

      • The NEW Cardinal way. We can all hope at least. In all seriousness I haven’t found much reason to be optimistic on them other than “it’s the Cardinals and they’re always good”.

        • Baseball is too damn hard for even the mightiest not to eventually fall.

          Scott’s definitely right, you can’t make too much out of one series. But holy cow, if that wasn’t the embodiment of every legitimate fear a Cardinal fan had coming into the year I don’t know what is.

          Nothing from their aging core, an already-poor offense looking even more tame, and shotty defense all around the diamond. Yikes.

          I definitely agree, if the club that we just saw on the field were named the Marlins and not the Cardinals I’m not sure anyone would be calling them a contender for the division. They’ll win their share of ballgames, but I don’t think this is a very good baseball team.

  • Michael Sanders
    April 7, 2016 7:49 am

    Quick question, at times, do you think there is consideration of a 6 man rotation in Pittsburgh or a chance that Vog will be traded for a prospect or two (even salary dump)?

    • Scott Kliesen
      April 7, 2016 8:01 am

      No way they take away starts from Cole and Liriano just so Vogie can start. And Vogelsong has no trade value at this point.

      He’s mop up guy and SP depth at this point.

      • He will have his chance on the mound, as much as we all might not want it to come to that.

        • Right, it’s a long season and he’ll throw his share of innings before it’s over. Who knows, he may pull a Blanton and get to extend his career by moving to a bullpen role.

    • The whole point of signing Vogie was to eat innings till he’s replaced by TG or JT. Whether it’s a cut or cash considerations, someone will pick him up as a long reliever w a 2 million dollar salary which is super cheap. He won’t hit his incentives unless he’s a starter.

  • Michael Sanders
    April 7, 2016 7:47 am

    I like how his eyes EXPLODE in this picture, like his pitches.

  • Lots of teamwork highlighted by excellent pitching performances. Appreciate Marte and Polanco both being more selective at the plate, and Freese continues to find a way to make the highlight reel – great play to end the game. He has always been a solid, but not spectacular, defender, and a nice touch by the broadcast team recognizing the professional approach he brings and how it rubs off on the rest of the team. He has been a good complement to ‘Cutch.

    Luebke looked anxious which is to be expected after missing the better part of 3 seasons. As he settles, he looks like he will be an excellent add to the BP.

    • Is it too early to think of Juan Nicasio as either 3a or 3b in this Rotation?

      • Scott Kliesen
        April 7, 2016 7:59 am

        With his stuff, he looks like a #3 to me.

        • My goodness, where did that command come from?!

        • Going down the road a few minutes ago listening to MLB Radio and they were talking about the Nicasio outing, the Pitcher whisperer, Ray Searage, and then ending by saying it was Cole, Liriano, AJ Burnett last year, Cole Liriano, and Volquez before that, and now it is Cole, Liriano, and Nicasio so far this year.

          They also gave the Pirates credit first for identifying and pursuing Nicasio as a possible SP candidate, and then for having the guts to stick with his performance in ST as a reason to put him into the Rotation. Good stuff, 159 left.

  • Great game. Juanny Cash was dealing. Not an easy out in this lineup. The Pirates put a lot of guys on base in every game and made 3 good pitchers look average.

  • This next series is really important as last year we played tough against the good sides but struggle at times against the weaker opponents particularly in our division. A series win against the Reds is needed.

  • Really happy for Luebke. Great to see.

    • Can’t imagine all the work he had to do to come back and how easy it would have been to give up when he had to have the second operation.
      It looked like he was rushing himself after he got the first 2 outs and was trying to do too much with the pitches.

      • In Luebke’s case, it shows how much he loves the game. That’s a lot of rehab with a lot of unknowns after 2 TJs. What a weapon for the team. I cannot believe how good the team looked, other than a few hiccups in the second game.