As tough as his first five starts were upon a promotion to Double-A Jacksonville, Justin Nicolino's outing on Friday was a breeze.
The Marlins' No. 4 prospect recorded a career-high 13 strikeouts and allowed three hits over six scoreless innings as the Suns beat the Birmingham Barons, 6-3, in the first game of a doubleheader.
Nicolino (3-2) had surrendered at least four runs in four of those first five starts after being promoted from Class A Advanced Jupiter on July 20. He came into Friday's game with a 6.94 ERA before putting together arguably the best start of his three-year career.
"I just kind of got in the mentality of going out there and trying not to do too much, attacking the hitters and establishing my fastball," he said. "I kind of got away with that a little bit when I got up here, was too fine, but tonight I was just establishing my fastball, trusting my off-speed stuff, and the offense came through and the defense made plays for me."
His introduction to Double-A presented the first real challenge to Nicolino since the Blue Jays selected him in the second round of the 2010 Draft. He had a 1.33 ERA over 61 innings in his pro debut across two levels in 2011, then was 10-4 with a 2.46 ERA for Class A Lansing last season before he was traded to the Marlins last November in the mega-deal involving Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
And in his first action in the Miami system, the 21-year-old left-hander went 5-2 with a 2.23 ERA over 96 2/3 innings with Jupiter, striking out 64 and walking 18.
Upon joining Jacksonville, Nicolino was touched for nine earned runs on 16 hits and two walks over eight innings in his first two starts. In his last outing on Aug. 10, he was knocked around for five runs on nine hits in four frames.
"[Tonight] was kind of a sigh of relief, you know, because I went to Pensacola and only threw four innings and we wound up playing 16 innings, so to be able to bounce back was a bit of a relief," he said. "In the second and third inning, I got myself into a little bit of a jam and made a few good pitches to get out of it.
"I just wanted to go out and keep it rolling, I didn't want to have that long inning. And the biggest thing was having those shutdown innings, just going out there and competing."
Nicolino lowered his Southern League ERA to 5.52 and has 26 strikeouts against eight walks over 29 1/3 innings.
"I have maybe three or four starts left and, hopefully we get into the playoffs. That's always the goal for everyone. For me, the goal is to finish the season out strong, I don't wanna leave for the offseason not happy, feeling like I didn't leave everything out there at the end," he said.
Jacksonville staked Nicolino to a quick lead as Derek Dietrich delivered a two-run double in the bottom of the first and scored on a base hit by Daniel Pertusati. Mark Canha hit a two-run double as the Suns scored three more times in the fifth.