Flashback: Lansing LHP Justin Nicolino

LHP Justin Nicolino allowed four runs on seven hits and three walks to pick up the win Tuesday night as the Miami Marlins knocked off the Arizona Diamondbacks 7-4 in Miami. Nicolino was part of the 13-player trade with the Marlins as the Jays sent Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis, Anthony DeSclafani, Jake Marisnick and Nicolino to Miami for Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and cash. Photo: Kevin Fowler, Lansing State Journal.


Originally published Aug. 24, 2012

By Bob Elliott
MIDLAND, Mich. -- His manager says all the normal, complimentary things managers say about prospects.

And he adds “he has ... the eye of the tiger,” John Tamargo, of the class-A Lansing Lugnuts.

Yeah, right, you think.

You heard that line back in the 1970s from boxing trainers.

Then on fight night it turned out the trainer’s fighter could have sold ads on the bottom of his boxer’s shoes -- he was knocked out in the first round, lying on his back so long the ref could have counted to 100. 

You’ve written for years about players with great futures. Some pan out, some surface with another team as the seventh man out of the bullpen and some you never hear about again.

Then you talk to lefty Justin Nicolino.

He seams like a nice, polite 20-year-old and you ask his best game in high school.

He attended the University High School in Orlando and pitched for the Cougars. He remembers there was this “big game” against his school’s rival, the Timber Creek Wolves.

“I knew a lot of guys on the team, my buddies,” Nicolino said. “I threw a two or three hitter and struck out 14.
“We won 3-0.”

Nicolino stands 6-foot-3 and his chest does not stick out as he tells the story. He does not appear to stand any taller.

But his eyes narrow as he completes the flashback saying “I walked away from that game feeling happy, awfully happy.”

Ah, that was the eye of the tiger Tamargo had spoken about before Friday’s game against the Great Lakes Loons at Dow Diamond.

In this nightmare 2012 Blue Jays season, is it wrong for fans to dream about three young bucks -- Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard and Nicolino -- dominating at Lansing?

Syndergaard turns 20 on Wednesday, then all three will be 20. 

The trio has combined to go 24-12 with a 2.98 ERA, walking 97 and striking out 310 in 240 innings.   

Nicolino, who leads the league with a 2.52 ERA Nicolino is leaving a trail throughout the minors. 

A total of 185 strikeout victims at class-A Vancouver and Lansing last year and this season at Lansing, including 112 in 114 1/3 innings.

Jays fans come to Lansing for a look at the three too-good-to-be true prospects, lean over the rail and say: “we support you, we can’t wait until you get to Toronto.”

And he’s not forgetting where he was a year ago.

He still stays in contact with his host family, Denise and Marcus Foster, in Vancouver.

“I’d come home after a night game and dinner would be on, didn’t matter how long the game was,” said Nicolino. 

“(Reliever) Ian Kadish was with the Fosters this season before he was called up.”

At Vancouver, the lefty appeared in 12 games making nine starts and had a 1.03 ERA. And when Vancouver needed a win to keep their chance alive for winning the first half, Nicolino pitched five innings to beat Eugene near the end of the first half of the Northwest season, clinching post-season berth.

“Five hitless,” he said showing the squint of the tiger. 

The best part of the minors for Nicolino is “getting to know people from different states, different countries, I loved Vancouver, it’s a big-league city,” and the worst is being away from his family, mom Cheri and father Dale, a coppersmith for EJMcopper Inc. making chimney caps, kitchen hoods and awnings.

His father moved to Florida from Ohio when Nicolino was a two-year-old.

As a seven year old he began playing baseball (“I started late”) playing the outfield and first base. One day one of his pal’s parents, Tom McPherson asked him if he’d ever thought about pitching.

He tried it.

He liked it.

He had success.

His high school coaches Vic Adkins and Tony Mehlich helped advance his career. After showing well at Perfect Game showcases and accepting a scholarship to pitch at the University of Virginia, Nicolino got the news scouting director Andrew Tinnish had selected him in the second round, while having his car serviced by a mechanic.

He quickly agreed to terms for a $615,000 US signing bonus and was off to Dunedin.  

“My parents send me a lot of stories where people have written or said nice things about me,” said the lefty. “I’ll read them some day down the road.

“I’m trying to keep myself humble.”