Justin Nicolino didn’t attract the attention of scouts during his climb to the majors the way most pitchers do.
The 6-3, 190-pound lefty and Orlando native has a fastball that barely tops out around 90 mph.
But his ability to keep hitters off balance with off-speed pitches and good movement usually draws bad contact consistently from hitters, a quality that has compensated for his lack of overpowering stuff.
“It’s hard to get good barrel on his pitches,” said J.T. Realmuto, who caught Nicolino often when both were on the same teams at the minor-league level. “Everything he throws moves and he doesn’t throw it off the plate very often.
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“He can throw five different pitches in a 2-0 count, so it makes it harder on hitters because you never know what you’re going to get.”
Nicolino, one of the pitchers in contention for a spot in the Marlins’ starting rotation for the coming season, made 12 starts after being called up from Triple-A in June last season with the Marlins suffering injuries to multiple starting pitchers.
Nicolino went 5-4 with a 4.01 ERA in 74 innings pitched, making two starts in June following an injury to Tom Koehler. He was then sent back down to the minors and recalled in August following an injury to Jose Fernandez and pitched in the rotation the remainder of the season.
Nicolino finished with 23 strikeouts and 20 walks — a poor 1.15 ratio in that category even by his standards that he’s working on improving this season. He did, however, limit opposing hitters to a .264 batting average on balls in play.
Nicolino, who threw to live hitting on one of the back fields Monday in Jupiter, has made two starts and three appearances overall this spring, and is 0-1 with a 2.16 ERA in 8 1/3 innings with two strikeouts and no walks. He has retired 22 of the 31 batters he has faced either by groundouts (12) or flyouts (10).
“Nico’s a guy that baseball-wise you look at him and he’s not throwing 98 [mph] so sometimes people pass those guys by, but he’s a guy that just gets results,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “This guy is going to be a winner in the big leagues.”
Nicolino went 50-25 combined at all levels in the minors over five seasons. Last season following a stellar debut in June, he managed to make eight quality starts, but struggled in the other ones, giving up five runs or more in three of them.
“All four of my pitches have been coming around pretty well, but I feel like that’s back where it needs to be,” Nicolino said. “The biggest thing is staying consistent. My delivery has been the key. If I’m down in the zone with all my pitches then I’m doing my job with my delivery. It’s what I’ve been working on in my bullpens and it’s been correlating to my games.”
Nicolino pitched 189 innings combined at both levels last year and 170 1/3 innings the prior season in Double A.
“Pitching 200 innings is my biggest goal this season,” Nicolino said. “I always watched pitchers like Yohan Santana, Cliff Lee and Mark Buehrle and the way every year they pitched 200 innings. It’s something to be proud of. You’re going out there and getting around 31 starts and helping your team win.”
After Jose Fernandez and Wei-Yin Chen, Tom Koehler appears to be a lock and Jarred Cosart likely will also be in the rotation. This, along with Adam Conley’s impressive spring so far could put Nicolino at Triple-A to start the season again.
But Nicolino would likely be the first pitcher called up when the need arises.
“His fastball has always been there, and he’s improved a lot on his off-speed pitches and fastball command,” Realmuto said. “His curveball had been his trouble spot the last couple of years. This spring is the best I’ve seen him throw it the whole time. I think he’s going to be really consistent for us once he gets his chance.”
Cosart threw 70 pitches Monday as he dueled early with Mets starter Jacob deGrom and continued his impressive spring in a 2-1 Marlins victory over the Mets.
Cosart did not give up a run in 3 2/3 innings and has now thrown 9 2/3 scoreless innings overall this spring. He gave up only three hits and two walks but struck out four. At the plate, Cosart hit a line drive down the right-field line for a single that was the first hit of the spring by a Marlins pitcher. Andre Rienzo hit a double in the ninth as well.
Tuesday: Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez vs. Red Sox RHP Steven Wright, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.
Wednesday: Marlins RHP Tom Koehler vs. Cardinals RHP Carlos Martinez, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.