Last month, I journeyed to Cooley Law School Stadium in Michigan to watch three Lansing Lugnuts games. On that trip, however, I missed the infamous pitching duo of Justin Nicolino and Aaron Sanchez (also known as “Sanchelino”, courtesy of Lugnuts starter Marcus Walden), so I knew that I would have to make another trip down in the not so distant future to see them.
That trip came last week, when I was able to take in four Lugnuts games from Monday to Thursday, with Nicolino and Sanchez scheduled to pitch on the Thursday night. I had kept last Friday open in the event of a postponed game while I was down there, but both hurlers pitched on Thursday as planned. Here’s what I noted about Nicolino, and I’ll have a separate article coming on Sanchez.
Note: The velocities mentioned below were an average of a nearby scout’s gun and the stadium gun, which was unreliable at times as it consistently read 2-3 mph higher or didn’t give a reading at all. I did bring my gun with me, but for whatever reason I discovered very quickly into the first game on Monday that it didn’t pick up accurate readings from a variety of different seating locations, so I was forced to improvise for the rest of the trip.
Nicolino, like Sanchez, entered last Thursday’s game without having allowed a single run so far this season, but with Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos in attendance, he finished his outing having allowed three earned runs on a season-high six hits with four strikeouts. He didn’t necessarily have his best stuff, but I still walked away quite impressed.
Nicolino’s smooth, repeatable delivery was noticeable, and confirmed the work that he has put in to iron out his mechanics since pitching with Vancouver last year. His fastball was 89-93 mph, touching 94 on the stadium gun once, and he commanded it to both sides of the plate, running it inside to right-handers. He dazzled with his plus changeup at times, ranging from 82-86 but consistently sitting 83-84, both up and down in the zone. His sweeping 75-79 mph curveball worked well against left-handers and he threw it with good wrist action that caused a sharp 2-8 break. He did throw the curve for strikes, but his command could have been better as he missed the zone more often that not with it, especially outside to left-handed hitters.
Getting the start, Nicolino managed to erase a leadoff single in a scoreless first inning with a heads-up pickoff throw 1-3-6 in his third toss over to first base. Outside of a missed swing with his changeup, he stuck primarily with his fastball during the inning.
In a scoreless second, Nicolino mixed up his pitches a lot more, and his polish became much more evident; he faced four hitters in the frame and took little time to color me impressed. The first thing that stood out was the way he handled Bowling Green leadoff hitter Todd Glaesmann, a right-handed hitter. After throwing a 90 mph fastball down the middle for a called first strike, he switched to his curveball, which was ruled high and inside for a ball. Then, instead of throwing a different pitch, Nicolino went right back to his curveball and placed the offering a hair less inside to get the strike call, before inducing a weakly hit grounder that resulted in an infield single.
The second thing that impressed me that inning wasn’t that Nicolino not only got ahead 0-1 on each of the final three batters of the inning, but that he did so using three different pitches. He threw a 91 mph fastball down the middle to Cameron Seitzer, an 84 mph changeup over the plate to Josh Sale, and a 79 mph inside curveball to Joel Caminero, all for strikes. Facing Caminero with two out, Nicolino toggled exclusively between his curveball and changeup to eventually strike him out swinging. Lugnuts No. 2 broadcaster Keaton Gillogly tweeted a few weeks about how Nicolino’s nasty changeup lives up to the hype, and after seeing it in a game situation first-hand, I certainly agree.
The third inning was really the only spot where Nicolino got into a bit of trouble, where two weak runs were scored on him. After he fielded a chopper to the mound but couldn’t get the runner in time on his throw, a first-pitch single and a double steal quickly put runners on second and third with nobody out. A sacrifice fly and a ground out quickly put two outs on the board but two runs as well, before Nicolino struck out left-handed hitter Jeff Malm swinging on an inside fastball to end the frame.
Leading off the top of the fourth, Nicolino struck out Glaesmann on six pitches: 90 mph fastball outside (ball), 83 mph changeup high (swinging strike), 90 mph fastball outside (swinging strike), 92 mph fastball (foul), 91 mph fastball inside (ball) and an 82 mph changeup low (swinging strike three). After getting his next hitter to ground out, it looked as though Nicolino was going to have a routine 1-2-3 inning. But the next batter, Josh Sale, hammered a 1-0 pitch all the way into a parking lot across the street in right field for a solo home run. It came on a fastball, and was the first home run that Nicolino had surrendered in his pro career.
A single and an error from Lugnuts third baseman Andy Burns quickly put runners on first and second, but Nicolino struck out Bowling Green’s Tyler Goeddel swinging to end the threat. After tossing a first-pitch strike with a fastball, Nicolino impressed me once again by going to his curveball in a jam and throwing it for consecutive strikes.
After his latest start on Tuesday, Nicolino now has a 1.33 ERA in 27 innings for the Lugnuts this season. He’s given up 25 hits over that span, including 12 in his last eight innings, but also has 27 strikeouts to just three walks for a 9:1 ratio.