Like in any profession, rising through the ranks is easier when you have a friend along for the ride. Over the past three seasons, Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena have formed a bond, not only on the mound, but in the clubhouse and beginning this weekend, in the first two games of the New Orleans Zephyrs season, the duo will once again be together, like they have been for nearly all of the past three years.
Nicolino, who has captured top pitching honors each of the past three seasons and won the Most Outstanding Pitcher award in the Southern League in 2014, is expected to be on the hill Thursday night as the Zephyrs open the 2015 campaign against Omaha.
He and Urena headlined the Double-A Jacksonville Suns championship season a year ago, combining for 27 regular season wins and three more in the postseason. Now they’re both in the Zephyrs rotation, continuing their climb through the Marlins’ organization.
“The biggest thing is that we’ve fed off each other the last three years. In 2013 we were getting a feel for each other and to be honest, he might not speak the best English, but he is one of my closest buddies on this team,” Nicolino said. “We talk to each other and I pick his brain a lot and everyday I ask him how he feels and that’s how we are. The biggest thing last year is that we were two of the only guys that were there [Jacksonville] the whole season, and we worked off of each other.”
The 23-year-old southpaw led the Southern League in 2014, posting a 2.85 ERA to go along with a 14-4 record over 170.1 innings. He also led the league in WHIP (1.07) and opponents’ average (.249). It’ll be his second Opening Day assignment in three seasons in the Marlins’ organization after being acquired in the blockbuster, 12-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays following the 2012 campaign.
The second-best prospect in the Marlins organization heading into this season, according to MLB.com, Nicolino will be reunited with skipper Andy Haines, two seasons after the manager led Single-A (Advanced) Jupiter to a 68-69 mark before taking over in New Orleans prior to last year.
“In 2013, being my first year with the Marlins, I was a little bit too excited on Opening Day,” Nicolino said. “But now I know Andy and [pitching coach John] Duffy and all the guys on the team, so it is kind of easier to go out there and relax. My adrenaline and emotions are going to be going 100 miles a minute, but I have better control on it as I’ve gotten older.”
Urena, a 23-year-old flame-thrower from the Dominican Republic, has plenty of practice following Nicolino in the rotation, as he did 14 times last season. But the soft-spoken righty – ranked No. 7 in the Marlins organization heading into the season – who led the Southern League in strikeouts (121) and won 13 games across 162.0 innings, is only a “No. 2” to start the year.
“Jose is deserving to start the opener too, and he goes a little bit under the radar because Nicolino has been Pitcher of the Year two years in a row, but he doesn’t come in second place to too many people in my eyes,” Haines said. “He’s one of my favorite guys I’ve ever had. And after the first time through the rotation, you want everybody to feel like they’re your No. 1.”
The Pacific Coast League has been a notoriously tough league for pitchers to thrive in, but Haines knows that he has two front-line starters capable of bucking that trend this season.
“They’re both very tough-minded kids and they’re very competitive,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s going to be a challenge for them. The league, if it’s like it was last year, is going to be very impressive to get through it. But these are two guys that are up for that challenge. It’s a different animal and these are two guys that I’m very excited to see how they respond to this challenge. They’re both on their way, if they stay healthy.”
The bond that the two starters have formed over the past three seasons is a special one, and Urena says that he pays close attention to Nicolino when the lefty is on the mound.
“When he’s pitching or when I’m pitching, we both pay attention to what we’re both doing and how we attack the hitters and get them out. We try to be on the same page together and work with one another in that way,” Urena said.
The Storm Chasers have won back-to-back National Championships, but Nicolino was quick to point out he and Urena have some experience in winning themselves.
“You have to tip your cap to a team that’s won two championships in a row, but at the same time, a few of us are coming off a championship season as well,” he said. “So we know that feeling and I’m really excited about pitching against them.”