Josh Beckett’s was a dandy.
So was Brad Penny’s.
When it comes to the most dazzling major-league debuts by a Marlins starting pitcher, few stack up to the one delivered Saturday by 23-year-old Justin Nicolino, who produced a gem at Great American Ball Park.
Nicolino — thrust into a starting assignment at the last minute when Tom Koehler was scratched because of a sore neck — shut down the Cincinnati Reds in the Marlins’ 5-0 victory.
“It was Nico’s night,” Marlins manager Dan Jennings said.
How impressive was Nicolino?
The promising left-hander became the first pitcher in Marlins history to deliver at least seven shutout innings in his major-league debut, “and there’s been some pretty good arms to roll through this organization,” Jennings noted.
Said Nicolino: “It’s one of those things that’s indescribable.”
Nicolino went seven innings and didn’t give up a run in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. While Nicolino struck out just two batters, he was poised and economical, pitching to contact and needing just 84 pitches to notch the victory.
“He’s got that composure and the understanding of how to make pitches,” Jennings said. “We needed a shot in the arm, and he provided it.”
The only other pitchers to make their major-league debuts with the Marlins and go at least six innings without allowing a run were Josh Beckett in 2001 and Adalberto Mendez in 2010.
Brad Penny allowed just one run over seven innings in his debut in 2000.
Nicolino gave up only four hits and walked just two. He said he only experienced butterflies once.
“I think before the first pitch and actually stepping on the mound and realizing where I was at. …,” Nicolino said.
“But once I got that first pitch out of the way, it was kind of the same game and going about it the way I always have.”
Nicolino helped to make that controversial trade with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012 look even better. Nicolino was one of the key pieces the Marlins acquired in that trade, along with shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and Henderson Alvarez.
There were two other players obtained by the Marlins in that deal that played a role in Saturday’s outcome. Derek Dietrich, whom the Marlins acquired from Tampa when they flipped Yunel Escobar to the Rays, belted two home runs in the win.
One of Dietrich’s shots landed about five or six rows from the top of the right-field bleachers. The other was a line drive that smacked a plastic sign above the Marlins’ bullpen.
And starter Anthony DeSclafani, who was on the mound for the Reds on Saturday, was also obtained by the Marlins in the Toronto trade before being dealt to Cincinnati last offseason for Mat Latos.
Even more ironic: DeSclafani and Nicolino were roommates last season in the minors.
“How much better would it to be to pitch against one of your best friends?” Nicolino said.
Nicolino was added to the roster just before Saturday’s game when Koehler, who was scheduled to start, was scratched because of neck and back spasms.
Nicolino had spent the year at Triple A New Orleans and was ranked by MLB.com as the No.3 prospect in the Marlins’ organization behind pitchers Jose Urena and Tyler Kolek.
Not known for his propensity to strike out hitters, Nicolino instead relies on a four-pitch menu and command of the strike zone.
“Everyone wants to come up in their debut and throw up zeroes,” he said.
On Saturday, Nicolino didn’t allow a hit until his buddy, DeSclafani, singled in the third. He was never seriously threatened by the Reds, using a double-play ground ball and a strikeout of Joey Votto to get out of the third after DeSclafani and Billy Hamilton opened the inning with singles.
Nicolino induced three double-play grounders during the performance.
Whether Nicolino remains in the rotation or is returned to the minors is uncertain. Koehler didn’t think his neck and back issue would persist long enough to warrant a stint on the disabled list.
And the Marlins are expecting Jarred Cosart back from the DL within the coming week or so.