Five days ago, Jacksonville's Justin Nicolino was at the absolute peak of his game, striking out a career-high 13 in six three-hit shutout innings.
He wasn't quite that good in his next start Wednesday night, and yet, the end result was remarkably similar.
Nicolino matched the longest outing of his career, firing off seven shutout innings while scattering five hits and two walks and striking out two. The Double-A Suns wound up falling short in a 3-1 loss to the Chattanooga Lookouts.
The fourth-ranked Marlins prospect said on a night when he wasn't really in his best form, he was able to take a certain amount of satisfaction from being able to battle through it.
"My last outing, five days ago, I had everything work. Tonight, I had to work a little bit more, throw some pitches out of the zone to help myself out. And I was fortunate enough that the defense played great," Nicolino said. "To me, I look at these games as they show you what you're made of, when you go without your best stuff. I was fortunate last outing to have everything work and today I had to compete a little more. Made big pitches when I needed to get out of innings. I'm walking away tonight happy as I could be. I had to battle, had to grind."
Nicolino was able to induce two double plays in the outing. He added that when he realizes he just doesn't have his most potent stuff, it becomes a matter of working within himself.
"You can't force anything when you know you don't have anything and everything's not working for you," he said. "You can't force it. The moment you're forcing fastballs in there or even offspeed pitches, you leave stuff up and get hurt. I went out and had the mind-set, 'Hey, you don't have your best stuff but go out and work your [butt] off,' and I was lucky to do that."
The southpaw also found it rewarding to deliver his longest outing yet at Double-A and give the bullpen a bit of a breather after a doubleheader Monday and an extra 4 1/3 innings of work Tuesday.
"It's great, because you want to give the bullpen a rest if you can. To be able to go as deep as I did tonight, it's a good feeling. Like I said before, it wouldn't have been the way it was without my defense making great plays, those two key double plays to get out of innings."
Although the 21-year-old did not factor into the decision, he lowered his ERA to 4.46 in seven starts with the Suns. He's 3-2 with 28 strikeouts and 10 walks in 36 1/3 innings in the Southern League.
In his last two starts, he's gone 13 innings without allowing a run. He's yielded just eight hits and four walks while fanning 15 in those two outings.
"I hope [it's the beginning of a trend]. I mean you kind of have to have a short-term memory in this game. The game will eat you up alive mentally. Physically, you know you can do it, but the mental side gets most players throughout this game," he said. "We play 142 games in a year and I hope to make 25 to 30 starts a year. You're not always going to have your best stuff, but you have to go out and compete and have fun and enjoy it. Not let yourself get beat up, that's the biggest thing I look at."
Mark Canha provided the Suns offense with a home run and a double.
Angelo Songco homered for the Lookouts in the eighth to tie the game and Pete Andrelczyk's wild pitch brought home Miguel Rojas to give Chattanooga the lead. Brian Cavazos-Galvez lifted a sacrifice fly later in the inning to score Joc Pederson for the team's final run.