Healthy Nolasco makes for interesting rotation decision

Right-hander competing with others for No. 5 slot

Healthy Nolasco makes for interesting rotation decision

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In a Twins camp that doesn't feature many position battles, what role Ricky Nolasco will serve come Opening Day is one of the more intriguing storylines this spring.

Nolasco, owed $25 million over the next two years and coming off two injury-plagued and ineffective seasons, is competing for the final spot in the rotation along with left-hander Tommy Milone and right-handers Trevor May and Jose Berrios. Nolasco took a step forward on Tuesday, tossing three scoreless innings in a 5-2 loss to the Cardinals and said he's not worried about being in a spring competition for the first time since he was a youngster with the Marlins.

Nolasco works three shutout innings against Cardinals

"The way I look at it is that, when I'm trying to get ready to pitch in a game, I'm trying to get people out and it doesn't matter if I'm first up or last up in the rotation," Nolasco said. "I know how I feel. I'm confident with what will happen. I'm feeling as good as I have in a long time."

Nolasco, 33, has shown he's past his injury issues from last year, as his fastball has hit as high as 94 mph on the Hammond Stadium radar gun. It's a welcome sign after he missed a month early last season with a strained right elbow before missing four months with an ankle injury that required surgery.

"He's healthy," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "He came into this camp looking ready to go. I'm interested to see how he responds. We didn't see much of him last year after May."

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But Nolasco faces a tough task to crack the rotation. Milone is coming off a better year and as a soft-tossing lefty doesn't profile as a reliever, which is a role Nolasco could find himself in if he doesn't win the job as the club's fifth starter. May is also in the mix, but remains likely to open the season in the bullpen, and Berrios, the club's top pitching prospect, is likely to start at Triple-A Rochester.

Nolasco, though, said he's tried his best not to focus too much on the competition, as the decision is ultimately out of his control.

"I'm not really worried about it," Nolasco said. "I'm just going to take the ball every fifth day and things will take care of themselves."

Nolasco struggled in his first outing, surrendering three runs over 1 1/3 innings, but he looked much better against the Cardinals on Tuesday. He gave up three hits, including a pair of doubles, but was helped by two double plays and four strikeouts. He said he's still searching for his fastball command, but he has been pleased with the quality of his stuff, even in his first start against the Red Sox on Thursday.

"I felt good both times out," Nolasco said. "I made it a little harder trying to put guys away [today]. Maybe tried to do too much. But when I got even in the count, I was able to make the pitches I needed to make. I was just trying a little too hard. But that's what we're here for."

Twins manager Paul Molitor wasn't there to watch Nolasco's start against the Cardinals because he was at the club's split-squad game against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, but bench coach Joe Vavra was impressed by Nolasco and will give Molitor a positive report.

"He used a good mix of pitches," Vavra said. "He kept the ball down for the most part. He elevated when he needed to. But I thought he competed, and that's the bottom line. When he got himself into trouble, he made pitches. For him, it's all about competition and competing, so I thought it was pretty good."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.