The Lansing Lugnuts have an exciting young rotation and one of those arms that have Blue Jays fans buzzing is Justin Nicolino. The 20-year-old southpaw was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 2nd round (80th overall) of the 2010 MLB draft out of University High School in Orlando, Florida.
“Growing up I looked up to players like Johan Santana and Cliff Lee,” stated Nicolino, discussing his initial involvement in baseball. “In middle school, I played both football and baseball, but once I got to high school I realized baseball was my true passion and I stuck with it from there.”
And stuck with it, he did. After going, 4-2 with a 1.95 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 44 innings in his last year at University High School, Nicolino was drafted by the Blue Jays two rounds earlier than anticipated. The confidence the Blue Jays had in him enabled Nicolino to forego his commitment to the University of Virginia.
Nicolino started his professional career in 2011 splitting time with the Vancouver Canadians and the Lansing Lugnuts, going 6-2 with a 1.33 ERA in 15 games, while striking out 73 and only walking 13. His performance entitled him to be named the Northwest League’s top pitcher by Baseball America. “Vancouver is a big league city with a minor league team. It has incredible fans, host families and teammates in Vancouver. It was an overall great experience,” said Nicolino, summarizing his time with the Canadians.
Justin would return to Lansing in 2012 where he is currently 10-4 with a 2.41 ERA with 114 strikeouts and 20 walks in 27 games. Earlier this season, Justin piggybacked starts with another top Blue Jays starter, Aaron Sanchez.
“The piggyback system definitely saved us some innings so we can go five or six innings a night later in the season. The piggyback system also helped us understand how to roll over a lineup and understand hitters better. This year is my first full season, but I feel great about it. Full season baseball teaches you how to take care of your body. I’ve enjoyed the experience and I look forward to finishing the season strong.”
Nicolino credits much of his success on his pitch repertoire. “I use a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, changeup, and I recently added a slider that I have been working on the last two months,” Nicolino said. “I’m comfortable throwing all of them and I’m going to keep working on them. My fastball feels like it comes out better some nights, but I’m usually between 89 to 92 mph and I’m happy with that, it shows that I can stay consistent.”
While Nicolino credits his fastball, scouts at Baseball America continue to rave about his changeup, naming it the best in the Blue Jays’ system in 2011 and the best in the Midwest League this season.
It should be no surprise, however, that it is not only the scouts that are raving about Nicolino’s abilities, as Lansing pitching coach Vince Horsman also had very kind words to say about his starter.
“Justin is doing a tremendous job this season,” Horsman said. “His curveball has improved a lot since last year and it is becoming a useful weapon for him. Justin’s command is also phenomenal for a young guy. He pitches older than he is.”
Like the rest of the Lugnuts, Justin is looking forward to the team’s upcoming playoff run. “I’m really looking forward to the playoffs. We have a whole new group of guys, with a few guys who experienced it last year. The team has wanted to win a championship since the beginning, because we were here last year. The new guys are much more hungrier, because we didn’t get the job done last year.”
For Justin Nicolino and the rest of the Lugnuts, here’s to hoping they can get it done this year.