10-4, good buddy: Nicasio stays unblemished

Pirates righty reaches double-digit K's in four innings, stretches scoreless streak to 10 IP

10-4, good buddy: Nicasio stays unblemished

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Introducing Juan Nicasio, who may be the Pirates' latest pitching success story.

Nicasio struck out 10 of the 14 Orioles hitters he faced over four innings in Pittsburgh's 9-3 loss at Ed Smith Stadium on Wednesday. The right-hander, signed to a $3 million contract in December, allowed one hit and extended his Spring Training scoreless streak to 10 innings.

Spring Training information

Nicasio has one career 10-strikeout game, which came as a member of the Rockies against the Padres on July 31, 2011. He faced 28 batters in that game, compared to the 14 he faced Wednesday.

"That kind of outing will get your attention," manager Clint Hurdle said.

The 29-year-old right-hander baffled many of the Orioles' everyday hitters with an array of 92-95 mph fastballs and 85-86 mph sliders, occasionally mixing in a changeup to keep them off-balance.

"That's pretty good stuff there. That was legit, OK?" Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Sometimes, you go, 'Geez, we're not swinging the bats well today.' Well, sometimes it's the pitcher."

Making his fourth appearance of the spring, Nicasio put only two men on base over four spotless innings. He hit Chris Davis in the back with a pitch in the second inning and gave up a two-out single to Manny Machado in the third inning. He struck out six of Baltimore's final seven hitters.

Nicasio has been a pleasant surprise for the Bucs this spring, coming in with relatively low expectations after a solid year in the Dodgers' bullpen. But he still doesn't seem to have a spot in their Opening Day rotation.

"I don't know. I'm working hard for the chance to be in the rotation, but I can't control all that," he said. "I try to do my job. I can't take care of that decision."

Nicasio on his dominant start

The Pirates have discussed using Nicasio as a versatile weapon out of the bullpen -- as a long man, a one-inning fireballer or spot/sixth starter. Is there a scenario where Nicasio begins the season in the Pirates' rotation?

"We're going to play it out. Every outing leads to the next outing," Hurdle said. "We like what he's doing."

Nicasio started for the Rockies from 2011-14. He has a career 5.12 ERA in the rotation, compared to a 3.74 mark out of the bullpen. But it may not be as simple as that. In an expanded role, Nicasio is still employing the mentality that worked for him as a reliever.

"When you go to the bullpen, you need to be sharp. I use like two pitches, my fastball and my slider," Nicasio said. "They need to be sharp, because when you go to the bullpen, sometimes you're in big situations. You can't make a mistake. You need to be sharp.

"When you're a starter, you're pitching for contact and trying to go deep in the game. When you're in the bullpen, sometimes you're going to face like three hitters only, one hitter, two hitters. Let it go."

Nicasio has let it go this spring, striking out 16 batters while allowing five hits and three walks in 10 scoreless innings.

Nicasio's three scoreless frames

He's maintained his velocity and shown good finish and command with his fastball. He's worked on his slider, and it was noticeably hard, sharp and tight in Wednesday's outing. He's worked down in the zone and gone up to get strikeouts.

He's paired well with catcher Francisco Cervelli, and he's thoroughly enjoyed his time with pitching coach Ray Searage.

Searage on working with players

"It's fun. He laughs. He has a good time," Nicasio said of Searage. "When you throw a good pitch, he's happy. I'm feeling happy when I throw a good pitch, and he's happy, too."

The Pirates pursued Nicasio as a free agent this offseason because he's pitched as a starter and as a reliever. Hurdle, a former Rockies manager, understands better than most the challenges of pitching in Coors Field. The deeper the Pirates dug into his numbers and character, the more they liked what they saw.

Pittsburgh's recent track record with reclamation projects is unmatched. When Nicasio was looking for a new home, he heard from one of the most successful examples of the Bucs' pitching prowess.

Francisco Liriano told Nicasio about Searage and how well the organization works with its pitchers, and Nicasio was sold.

"Everybody that came here, they got better," Nicasio said. "I know why now."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.