Nicasio starts strong
Juan Nicasio took a firm first step towards becoming the organization's next successful reclamation story. The right-hander was positively brilliant, posting seven strikeouts and allowing only one run in six innings pitched. He walked one and allowed two hits.
"I thought he was very aggressive," Clint Hurdle said. "Good fastball finish down. He used it up as well. The fastball and changeup both played."
Making his first start since last June, Nicasio earned a Bill James gem, tallying a 71 game score.
"This man has been through a bunch, so he's grown up," Hurdle said. "He's tough. He's got layers of toughness, both mentally and physically. He's come on a mission since he's gotten here."
Perhaps most impressive, Nicasio worked well when behind in the count. Certainly, it's not an approach he should rely on, but at least for one night it was notable how effective he was at working himself back into counts and getting outs after falling behind early.
"Sometimes, when I have good command of my fastball, it's okay if I fall behind in the count," Nicasio said.
In total, seven of the 18 outs he recorded came after working from behind, including fighting back from a 3-0 hole against Brandon Moss in the fourth.
After a successful spring training that earned him a spot on the starting rotation, Nicasio said it is important for him not to worry about anything else but making the next pitch.
"I felt really good today," Nicasio said. "I try not to think about tomorrow. I'm just trying to be happy and make good pitches."
John Jaso had a long, strange trip around the bases in the fifth. After reaching down and poking a 2-0 sinker high off the Clemente Wall, Jaso raced around second and headed for third. As he slid head-first into the bag, Kolten Wong's relay throw went skipping by both him and third baseman Matt Carpenter before ending up in the camera well beside the Pirates dugout. Jaso was awarded home and the Pirates extended their lead to 2-0.
"I was thinking homer out of the chute," Jaso said. "I saw another guy on our team [triple] it so I thought why not."
With the three-game sweep of the Cardinals, the Pirates jump out to about as good of start as one could hope for. Teams look good when they win, and that is certainly the case with the Pirates this home opening series.
"It's nice having a hot start coming out of the gate," Jaso said. "I think it starts with our pitchers and they did a really good job in this series."
First series thoughts
Looking back on the opening series there are four things that stick out to me that may be worth watching and could perhaps emerge as full-blown characteristics of this year's club.
- The infield defense appears noticeably improved. Josh Harrison covers a lot of ground at second and could turn into a plus defensive player there. The corner infield had a good series and Jordy Mercer will continue to be a solid defender at short. The revamped infield, combined with a very rangy outfield, could save a lot of runs this year.
- The tweaks Clint Hurdle has made to the lineup and his management of the bullpen are really encouraging. Freely pulling Watson out of the bullpen when the situation, not the inning, dictates has already paid dividends. Jaso leading off and Andrew McCutchen batting second give the Pirates a very nice one-two punch at the head of the lineup. It's already worth mentioning the McCutchen as yet to face the dreaded two-out, bases-empty, situation.
- Gregory Polanco is off to a very positive start to the season. He could be a huge difference-maker. The ball is pinging off his bat and he is displaying impressive plate discipline.
- Finally, a negative: Home runs. The Pirates swept the Cardinals despite not hitting a homer. This lineup may have trouble generating instant runs via the long ball all season, especially at PNC Park where left field will swallow a lot of fly balls. The offense will depend heavily on getting guys on base and then creating runs with speed. In this series the Pirates earned 14 walks, which is a good start to the disciplined approach they'll need.