A.J. Burnett. Francisco Liriano. Mark Melancon. Edinson Volquez. J.A. Happ. And now -- maybe -- Juan Nicasio.
After a terrific spring, Nicasio was stellar in his Pirates debut against the Cardinals Wednesday night, striking out seven batters, walking none, and throwing only one mistake pitch his opponents took advantage of (a misplaced slider in the sixth inning against rookie Jeremy Hazelbaker that went for a homer, after which Nicasio shrugged and whiffed the next two batters).
Nicasio leaned very heavily on two pitches, as he did last year, and lost a bit of velocity as the game went on, but man, are his two pitches good (he hit 97 MPH repeatedly earlier in the game) and he didn't display anything resembling the walk problems that have plagued him in the past. It's too early to say what the Pirates have here, but it's something, and if Nicasio emerges as a starter to rival someone like Happ or Volquez, it'll be yet another feather in the organization's cap.
And anyway, maybe I'm burying the lede here, which is that the Pirates swept the Cardinals to start the season, jumping out to a three-game advantage against a divisional rival and looking like a very high-functioning team. Nicasio's performance wasn't the only strong one tonight.
There was also Gregory Polanco, who walked three times, including with the bases loaded in the first. There was John Jaso, who belted a triple to lead off the fifth and then came home on a throwing error, demonstrating not only pop but also decent speed for a catcher-turned-first-baseman. There was Francisco Cervelli, who amused fans with a between-inning scoreboard bit in which he gave dating advice and then hit a two-run double. There was Sean Rodriguez, who hit a rare RBI double in the sixth. There were Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, who had two hits apiece. And there was Arquimedes Caminero, who hit 102 MPH with his fastball after taking over for Nicasio and also threw 96-MPH sliders (!!!). And let's throw in Cory Luebke, who allowed a couple baserunners and had to be replaced in the ninth but pitched in the big leagues for the first time since 2012 and threw 95 MPH.
The Pirates can now enjoy their day off tomorrow before heading to Cincinnati. They've only played three games, but they've outscored a tough team 15-7 so far and looked like a very talented and well-balanced team. If Nicasio's performance tonight signals a career turnaround, and if they play nearly as well together as they played tonight, this season is going to be better than we imagined.