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This time, Nicolino delivers in clutch
Marlins southpaw banishes demons with three-hit outing for Suns
09/01/2014 1:17 AM ET
Justin Nicolino has allowed one run or fewer in five of his past seven starts. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

On the final day of the 2013 regular season, Justin Nicolino took the hill for the Jacksonville Suns in a winner-take-all showdown with the Mississippi Braves to determine the Southern League's final playoff team.

On that day, the left-hander allowed five runs on nine hits and failed to make it out of the fourth inning in an eventual 6-5 defeat.

Fast-forward 12 months and Miami's No. 4 prospect faced a similar proposition. The Suns entered Sunday with a half-game lead over the Braves with two games to play. With the team's fate in his own hands, Nicolino made sure lightning didn't strike twice.

He capped a strong season with seven innings of three-hit ball as the Suns topped visiting Mobile, 5-0, at The Baseball Grounds.

"That was definitely in the back of my mind," Nicolino (14-4) said of his final outing in 2013. "Last year the game, the season basically, the playoffs were on the line. Tonight I wanted to come out with a different approach. Go out there and give the guys a chance to win. For me, this ball team is hot right now. Any time you give them an opportunity to score runs and help them out and when they play great defense, it makes it that much better.

"We've been battling and fighting this whole year and I think that is something that this team has done so well. I love every single one of those guys in the clubhouse and on the coaching staff, and whether we win or lose, we have nothing to regret."

Jacksonville clinched at least a tie for the Southern League South Division second-half title when Mississippi fell to Huntsville, 6-2, later Sunday night. The Suns can make the playoffs with a win Monday or a Mississippi loss.

Originally selected by the Blue Jays in the second round of the 2010 Draft out of University High School in Orlando, Florida, Nicolino had few problems shutting down the BayBears' offense Sunday. He struck out six batters, threw 54 of 74 pitches for strikes and did not allow a walk.

After giving up a second-inning single to Mitch Haniger, the 22-year-old set down 11 batters in a row before Mark Thomas singled to lead off the sixth. Brandon Drury singled to begin the seventh, but neither Thomas nor Drury advanced to second base.

"I felt great," said Nicolino, who lowered his ERA to a Southern League-best 2.64 and also leads the circuit in wins. "Coming in to today I was really nervous. It was a big ball game for us. I kinda told [catcher] JT [Realmuto] that. I said, 'Hey man, is it alright to be a little bit nervous?' He said, 'Yeah, that's good.' From the get-go, I commanded my fastball and commanded my offspeed and that was something that helped me. The offense picked me up and they've been doing that all year for me. Tonight's ballgame, another great win."

Acquired by the Marlins in a 12-player deal on Nov. 19, 2012, Nicolino also helped himself out at the plate with a bases-loaded single with one out in the fourth that chased home a run.

"It felt good," he said. "I was fortunate the guys allowed me to come up in that situation and [manager Andy Barkett] let me swing it. When you can help your own cause, it makes it that much better."

A previous version of this article indicated that Jacksonville had clinched the second-half Southern League South Division title Sunday. Instead, Jacksonville entered the final day of the season with a one-game lead over Mississippi and could clinch with a win or an M-Braves loss.

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MiLB.com/ Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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