Category Archives: Features

Nola returns to Omaha with Zephyrs

Austin Nola warms up with Marlins teammates prior to an exhibition game at Zephyr Field on March 30, 2013. Photo by: Parker Waters

Austin Nola warms up with Marlins teammates prior to an exhibition game at Zephyr Field on March 30, 2013. Photo by: Parker Waters

The last time New Orleans Zephyrs shortstop Austin Nola took the field in Omaha, Nebraska, he was suiting up for the LSU Tigers in the College World Series.

This week, Nola returns to the city of his most successful triumph, having earned a promotion to Triple-A for the first time as the Z’s open a four-game series against the Omaha Storm Chasers.

“I haven’t been back in Omaha since we won in 2009 so it’ll be a lot of fun,” Nola said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to run by the old Rosenblatt site where we had so many memories.”

It was in the 2009 College World Series where Nola, then a freshman for the Tigers, had his coming-out party, helping LSU win its sixth championship in the penultimate season at historic Rosenblatt Stadium. His defense at shortstop was perfect – no errors in 24 chances in Omaha – and his bat started to come around .250 (5-for-20 with a double, home run and four runs scored) ahead of three more seasons in the middle of the diamond for LSU.

Following a four-year run at LSU, Nola was chosen by Miami in the fifth round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft and he worked his way to Double-A Jacksonville in 2014, where he was a member of the Southern League championship team that was headlined by a host of current Zephyrs.

But it was not an easy road for Nola once he got to Jacksonville, and even after tasting success for the Suns last season, he returned to Double-A this year and was tasked with playing some second base, a new position for him.

“I needed to learn how to play more second base and get used to playing all around the diamond, being a utility player. That was big for me to get some good reps at second base at Double-A,” Nola said. “I was just trying to refine my approach, that’s it. I want to be consistent and I’ve been able to hit in all counts and play good defense at some different positions, which is a big thing for me.”

Though he hit only .211 in 69 games for Jacksonville this year, Nola was called up to New Orleans last weekend when starting shortstop Miguel Rojas earned himself a promotion to Miami.

“It’s a change of scenery and I’m moving on up. That’s always what you want to do when you get into this line of business: move up the ladder,” he said.

Nola played 27 games at second base, making three errors in 101 chances, but knows he needs to show versatility to continue “climbing the ladder.”

“Reid [Brignac] and I talked about that in spring training,” Nola said. “We talked a little about he and I being Louisiana guys and he just told me to play everything like shortstop. A lot of people I have talked to about it say that if you play shortstop a lot, you’ll be able to adjust to any other position on the field.”

For now, Nola will have to adjust to playing close to home for the first time since graduating from LSU in 2012. But he knows that when he and the Zephyrs return home starting July 4, he’ll have plenty of ticket requests to deal with.

“I’ve got a lot of great family and friends that are all looking forward to getting to see me when we get home and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “I have a lot of family and friends and you can’t beat that.”

Conley’s debut highlights “awesome week”

Adam Conley has ranked among the PCL leaders in wins and ERA en route to making his big league debut. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Adam Conley has ranked among the PCL leaders in wins and ERA en route to making his big league debut. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Pitching just an hour from his hometown, Adam Conley had more support than usual in the stands on June 5.

The 25-year-old left-hander was making his first professional start in his home state of Washington, with more than 30 friends and family in the stands as the Zephyrs took on the Tacoma Rainiers. Conley, who resides nearby in Olympia, Washington, gave his supporters plenty to cheer for.

Conley delivered his best start of the year, throwing 7 1/3 innings, scattering six hits and three runs, while striking out eight as the Z’s won 6-4. He threw 72 of his 107 pitches for strikes and turned in his longest start of the year.

“There was more adrenaline in that start than others. I just felt like the atmosphere there was a little more electric for me, knowing who was there and everything and just from the baseball side of it, it’s a great atmosphere there in Tacoma,” Conley said. “But on top of it, knowing there were so many friends and family there watching me put it over the edge.”

But the great feeling that Conley had following his best start of the season was only multiplied three days later when the Marlins called him up for his Major League debut.

“It was an awesome week for me, that’s for sure. It’s one I won’t forget,” Conley said. “When you go through professional baseball you wonder what that day is going to be like, and over the past few years, I was anticipating it more and was more anxious about that day coming. As I’ve gotten older, I understand better that when I was going to go up there, I needed to be ready and give myself the best chance to stay.”

Conley did his part, setting down the side in order on only six pitches on June 10 at Toronto. Although he was returned to New Orleans on June 12, Conley was able to take in the full experience of being in the bigs and pitching on a new mound, in a new stadium in front of all kinds of new fans.

“What I like to do, and I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, is when I get to a new stadium that I’ve never been to, I take a good look around then so when I go out there to pitch, it’s not going to be the first time I’ve been out there,” he said. “I had not only the early stretching and throwing program before the game, but I sat through two games from start to finish and it was actually the last defensive inning for us in the whole series, so I had a lot of time to take it in and be with the guys and learn the ropes.”

In two starts upon returning to Triple-A, Conley has earned a pair of victories, including Wednesday’s win over Round Rock when he limited the Express to one hit in six scoreless innings.

The win was Conley’s seventh of the year to move him into a tie for the Pacific Coast League lead, and he lowered his ERA to 2.61, putting him in consideration for the third All-Star nod of his career in his third different level of the Marlins organization.

But Conley said he’s just pitching more consistently to get more outs this season, after struggling in his first taste of Triple-A in 2014.

“I don’t think the things I am doing well right now are any better than they have been in the past when I do things well,” he said. “But I think it’s just limiting those mistakes and being more consistent. When I go out there I don’t do anything special. I just try and move my fastball to both sides of the plate and I try and get ahead and stay ahead.”

“When I can throw three pitches for a strike, on both sides of the plate, I like my chances. I think hitting is the hardest thing to do in sports and I try and keep that in mind when I’m on the mound.”

Dietrich’s game rounding into form

Derek Dietrich has hit .424 over his last nine games with five doubles, two home runs and nine RBI. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Derek Dietrich has hit .424 over his last nine games with five doubles, two home runs and nine RBI. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

After getting off to a hot start in the season’s first three weeks, Derek Dietrich cooled off significantly and saw his average dip into the low .200’s. For a player with 106 games and 373 at-bats under his belt in the major leagues, Dietrich knew that he needed to just stay the course and his bat would come back to him.

He closed May with a bang, racking up five extra-base hits and seven RBI over the final week of the month, getting his average back near his career minor league mark of .280.

“I think I’m usually a pretty good starter into the season and I got off to a good start here, but I just had to battle there for a few weeks,” Dietrich said. “I never panicked once and I trusted my ability to hit and I’ve just been a little bit more aggressive and really looking to drive the ball and use the opposite field.”

From May 23-27, Dietrich went on a tear, picking up three straight two-hit games, with five of those hits being doubles. He sprayed the ball to left field helped lengthen a lineup that dipped as the month went on. But when the club went on its first West Coast trip of the season, Dietrich’s bat exploded even more, culminating with a 3-for-4 night in Reno, in which he homered and drove in five runs as part of a 14-3 Zephyrs victory.

“Some days you get 10, 12, 15 hits and the runs come easy and other nights you get two or three and win or lose by one,” he said. “Those are tough games, but the defense has been huge for us and our pitching as well, but I don’t think anyone is worried about our lineup. We’ve shuffled around, but when we get the guys in there, everyone trusts we’re going to get it done at the plate.”

New Orleans finished the month of May with the Pacific Coast League’s best ERA at 2.73 and has committed a PCL-low 27 errors on the season, with Dietrich at the center of the defensive renaissance.

He has been involved in the most double plays at second base and leads all PCL second basemen with a .994 fielding percentage (one error in 160 chances), despite playing seven games at third base and one in left field. Dietrich said that shifting around with his glove isn’t too much of an adjustment.

“Third base comes naturally to me, just being an infielder in general, but I also played third a little bit for the USA team in college and in summer baseball, so I played a little bit on that side of the diamond and it’s always been a spot that I feel comfortable at,” he said.

But he knows that showing flexibility and playing multiple positions is a good way to get his resurgent bat into the lineup and show the Marlins that he is more than a one-trick pony in an effort to get back to the big leagues.

After hitting his team-high sixth home run in Tuesday’s loss at Tacoma, Dietrich is batting .276 and has moved into a tie for the club lead with 24 RBI. He has 10 doubles to equal his season total from all of last year.

“I’m just playing anywhere I can to get my bat in the lineup and give our club here and the Marlins an opportunity to use my bat,” he said.

Winning formula a simple one for Zephyrs

Highlight reel plays have become commonplace for Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Highlight reel plays have become commonplace for Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Two months into the 2015 season, the New Orleans Zephyrs have established an identity that’s led to victories. It may sound simple, but for the Zephyrs to be successful, it comes down to two things: pitching and defense.

Going into the finale of an eight-game homestand on Thursday, New Orleans led the Pacific Coast League in team ERA in the month of May and paced all of the minor leagues with only 20 errors committed in 44 games.

The Z’s are 15-11 in May after going 8-11 in April, and the club’s ERA has sunk from 3.40 in the season’s first month to 2.68 since the calendar turned.

“I really can’t pinpoint anything our guys are doing differently right now,” Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said. “I have been impressed with our pitching from day 1. There are ebbs and flows to the season and I think that’s just natural. There are different parks we go to on the road that are much more difficult to pitch in than ours, but you just can’t ignore how well we’ve thrown the ball on the mound. It gives us a chance to win.”

The Marlins have called up five different pitchers that appeared in game for the Zephyrs so far this year, forcing Haines to readjust his bullpen alignment. But one of the shining stars of the first two months has been 23-year-old Nick Wittgren, who has saves in back-to-back games and has four saves in as many chances in his first taste at Triple-A.

“I’ve had him in the past in Jupiter and he’s been a lockdown closer. He has really responded to the challenge at Triple-A,” Haines said. “It’s huge for the entire club when they have confidence when they get the lead that you can lock it down. There’s nothing more deflating than to not pitch well late in the game when you’ve played well for three hours and your bullpen is in a tough stretch or you don’t have a strong pen.”

Over the last 17 games, Zephyrs relievers have only allowed 13 runs in 56 2/3 innings, a sparkling 2.06 ERA, and Wittgren has allowed just one run over his past 10 appearances.

But a stingy defensive unit led by shortstop Miguel Rojas has nearly overshadowed the great pitching. The 25-year-old pivot man has made a host of sparkling defensive plays up the middle so far this year, catching the eye of Haines from the dugout on a nightly basis.

“You can’t say enough about Rojas in the middle of the field, the way he takes pride in his defense. I would pay to watch him play. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him; the way he goes about it is exciting to watch,” Haines said.

Rojas and second baseman Derek Dietrich have developed into a very solid double-play combination up the middle for the Z’s, with Rojas pointing to a strong relationship between the two for a little insight into the on-field success.

“It’s a good experience to work with a guy you can help out. We can help each other with different things. We’ve been doing a lot together; I help him with defense and he helps me with hitting. That relationship has been great, especially for him,” Rojas said.

Dietrich leads all PCL second basemen with a .993 fielding percentage (one error in 147 chances) and has been involved in the most double plays 28. He and Rojas, along with center fielder Isaac Galloway have provided stability up the middle of the diamond, giving the Z’s pitchers a level of confidence that they’re going to catch the ball if it’s hit to them.

“We’re competitive offensively, but when you have the team we have pitching-wise and the way we can play defense it’s an exciting team to manage,” Haines said. “You see a lot of great plays. You see in big spots if we can make a good pitch, there’s confidence the play is going to be made. Our guys take pride in their defense and you can see the energy they play with on the defensive side of the ball.”

Rojas knows that for the Z’s to continue to win games and put pressure on Round Rock – a team New Orleans has not played yet – as the season pushes towards the midway point, they need to continue playing solid defense, starting with he, Dietrich and Galloway up the middle.

“We need to be able to catch the ball and pitch because we aren’t the kind of team that’s going to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” he said. “We’re going to score a couple of runs, but we need to pitch and play defense. That’s why we have been successful here.”

Red-hot Gillespie powering Z’s attack

Cole Gillespie ranks among the Pacific Coast League's leading hitters in May. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Cole Gillespie ranks among the Pacific Coast League’s leading hitters in May. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

In 2014, Cole Gillespie reached the big leagues with both Seattle and Toronto, but managed just 74 at-bats between the two stops and spent time on the disabled list for nearly a month. In all, he suited up for six different teams in two different organizations, with a pair of rehab stops in Florida.

But this year, Gillespie has found his groove while comfortably being slotted into manager Andy Haines’ lineup nearly every day and the Zephyrs are reaping the benefits of a healthy and productive player.

In 17 games since May 1, Gillespie has the eighth-highest batting average in the Pacific Coast League at .379 and his 13-game hitting streak from May 2-16 was the sixth-longest streak in the league this season.

Since the calendar turned to May, Gillespie’s average has risen from .270 to .326, coinciding with a recent run of success for New Orleans, whose 11 wins in the month has already eclipsed its total in April.

In the midst of his hitting streak, Gillespie went 9-for-17 in a four-game series in Memphis, including a 4-for-6 game in which he scored three runs.

“I think every hitter will contest that there will be parts of the season where things are starting to roll a little bit and I think it started for me in Memphis,” Gillespie said. “The first game in town over there, it was a hit-parade for the whole team and I was able to get four that night. And that series parlayed into some good at-bats and some hits and things were just falling in place and finding some holes and that’s how baseball works.”

The team returned home and Gillespie remained red-hot, collecting five hits in three games against Oklahoma City before the streak ended with an 0-for-4 night in the second game of the series in Nashville last weekend.

A professional hitter with 243 big league at-bats on his resume, Gillespie said he didn’t put a ton of thought into his streak, instead just trying to “put a good swing on the ball and let the rest take care of itself.” Over the length of his streak, Gillespie struck out only six times and scored nine runs.

“It’s a long season, there’s going to be some ups and downs and you just don’t want to bury yourself when things aren’t going well or you’re not quite feeling well at the plate. You just have to find a way to grind out some at-bats and get some hits,” he said. “I’ve been able to do that for the most part this season.”

Despite the success throughout the season’s first seven weeks, Gillespie is not completely satisfied with what he’s done.

“I wish on a personal level I was driving the ball a little more and hitting for some more power, which I’m capable of, but that park at home might be giving my head a little fits. All I’ve known as a hitter is a friendly yard, but you can’t let that affect you,” he said.

Gillespie leads the Zephyrs with 11 doubles but is yet to hit a home run and has only eight RBI in 129 at-bats. Nevertheless, he ranks in the top-5 in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS and his 53 total bases rank third on the club.

Veteran Rottino giving Zephyrs a boost

After spending time in Japan and Korea, Vinny Rottino has gotten off to a hot start in his return to the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

After spending time in Japan and Korea, Vinny Rottino has gotten off to a hot start in his return to the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Vinny Rottino is from the old adage that age is just a number. And the 35-year-old is playing like he’s a spring chicken this year for the Zephyrs.

Coming into Tuesday’s series finale against Nashville, Rottino is tied for the team-lead with a .336 batting average and that mark ranks fifth in the Pacific Coast League. He has a team-best 22 RBI and also leads the club with 20 runs scored, as the Z’s have climbed to second place in the division behind Round Rock.

Rottino credits his offensive surge to four years ago, when he played for the Zephyrs for the first time. In 2011, playing for manager Greg Norton and hitting coach Damon Minor, both former major leaguers, Rottino said he picked up a couple adjustments that he continues to use today.

“Using some of those adjustments back then and going to Asia I learned how to block stuff out a little bit better, mentally,” Rottino said.

After spending time with both the New York Mets and Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A and MLB clubs in 2012, Rottino spent the last two seasons playing in Asia, first in Japan’s Pacific League in 2013 and then in the Korean Baseball Organization last year.

Over 313 at-bats in the past two seasons, Rottino hit .275, with six home runs and 30 RBI. He’s on pace to shatter those numbers this year, but knows he learned invaluable lessons playing in the foreign lands.

“They just are so demanding over there and I stay in the moment a little bit better now. It was a good experience to be over there and if I go to the big leagues, that’s going to have to happen again. You have to perform and to learn how to and know how to forget past at-bats, which is invaluable,” he said.

Rottino has at least one hit in every away game this year and has three hits in 14 at-bats in the current series against Nashville, which began this past Saturday with a marathon 18-inning game.

“I was talking to the first base coaches on Saturday, just trying to stay awake at that point, and I was telling them about that 24-inning game,” he said. “I was saying that it was the second-worst game I’d ever played in. The worst was the 24-inning one. It wouldn’t end. We had to finish the game the next day.”

That 24-inning game Rottino speaks of was played out over two days in May of 2006 at the now-closed Greer Stadium in Nashville. Nine years ago, Rottino was a Brewers farmhand and a member of the Sounds, giving him the distinction of being the only player to suit up for both marathon games between the two clubs.

“It was crazy, but it was cool that I was part of both games,” Rottino said.

The oldest player on the Zephyrs roster and just three years younger than manager Andy Haines, Rottino said this is the first year he’s feeling some of the aches and pains that players feel late in their careers. But with a little more precautionary work before and in between games, Rottino had learned to balance it out and keep the pain away as he’s continuing to crush PCL pitching.

“I still feel great at 35. I don’t feel it, I still feel like I can play in the big leagues,” he said. “My body has felt great every year and it still feels good, I just have to do a little bit more to stay healthy and keep those pains out of the body.”

Rojas making the most of new opportunity

Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas makes a turn in a recent series against Omaha. Photo by: Dennis Hubbard

Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas makes a turn in a recent series against Omaha. Photo by: Dennis Hubbard

When Miguel Rojas made his major league debut last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he struggled after being relegated to a pinch-hitting role and finished with a .181 batting average.

“Coming off the bench, it’s not easy,” Rojas said. “It’s not an excuse as to why I struggled, but if you see the numbers, the first couple of weeks I was doing better because I was playing every day. But when I was in a bench role, it was difficult because I have never been in that role in my career.”

After being acquired in a blockbuster seven-player trade with Los Angeles over the winter, Rojas has seen his numbers take off, playing regularly for the Zephyrs and playing his natural shortstop position in manager Andy Haines’ lineup.

“I’m really happy because they [Miami] gave me the opportunity to play every day and play the position I really like at shortstop,” Rojas said.

Over the Zephyrs’ first 22 games, Rojas has elevated his game to new heights, collecting at least one hit in 20 games and leading the team with a .354 batting average, in addition to playing Gold Glove-caliber defense up the middle.

In the most recent Zephyrs series against Oklahoma City, now the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate, Rojas went 4-for-12 with two runs scored and a pair of RBIs. But his biggest contribution of the year, to date, came on May 6, when he pushed across the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth with a double and then robbed a potential single up the middle with a diving catch, saving a New Orleans victory.

“That felt so good, not because it’s the Dodgers, but it was a great team win because everybody pulled together to win that game. For me, I was in the right place and the right position and I felt a little lucky to catch it,” he said.

It’s just another positive moment for Rojas in his first season with the Marlins organization, one he’s relishing after two seasons with Dodgers’ affiliates in Chattanooga and Albuquerque.

“I had two great years in the Dodgers organization and I’m really thankful for the opportunity they gave me to play in the big leagues,” Rojas said. “I’m just trying to help the team win every day. It’s important in a long season, to be a good guy in the clubhouse. You have to have fun every day and being a part of this team has been great because it’s been a great group of guys so far.”

Rojas’ .354 average is tied with teammate Brady Shoemaker for the sixth-best mark in the Pacific Coast League, and he has five sacrifice hits this year, tied for the PCL lead. His 12-game hitting streak that lasted from April 12-25 stands as the second-longest streak in the league this year, and Rojas is currently riding a seven-game hitting streak in which he’s batted .385 (10-26).

Rojas said that he’s learned a lot from his struggles in the big leagues with Los Angeles in 2014, and he’s applying that to this season and beyond.

“It’s all about confidence and timing. Your time is going to come, you have to be patient,” he said. “Last year taught me a lot and if I have to be a bench player when I get to the big leagues again, I’m going to be prepared for that. But, you can’t just look at what’s happening now, you have to play for the future and career. I want to just be positive and I have to think, ‘I’m here in Triple-A because they want me here.'”

It’s safe to say the Zephyrs are glad Rojas is in New Orleans, stabilizing the top of the lineup and fortifying a defensive unit that leads the PCL with just 10 errors in 934 chances, with Rojas’s .989 fielding percentage ranking second amongst all PCL shortstops.

Sanchez enjoying life on the mound

Former outfielder Salvador Sanchez is attempting to reach the majors as a reliever. Photo by: Parker Waters

Former outfielder Salvador Sanchez is attempting to reach the majors as a reliever. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

For the first six years of his professional baseball career, Salvador Sanchez relied on his bat in his dream of getting to the majors. But upon getting to spring training before the 2011 season with Texas, things changed for Sanchez.

“The Rangers were the ones that made the decision to put me on the mound. It was a tough decision. I had my time when everybody thought I was going to be an outfielder in the big leagues and I had a couple good years in Double-A,” Sanchez said. “It took me by surprise that they wanted me to pitch, but I knew I had the potential with my arm. I talked to my family and my agents and came to the conclusion that I was going to give it a try.”

Sanchez, 29, had totaled 51 home runs, 177 extra-base hits, 292 RBI and 102 stolen bases in six seasons as an outfielder in the White Sox organization, but hit just .256 in 565 games and struck out 475 times — nearly one-quarter of his at-bats.

After not pitching in a major league spring training game for Texas, Sanchez re-signed with the Chicago, the only club that he had ever played for, to give it a shot as a pitcher.

In three seasons and five different levels of the White Sox minor league system, the right-hander compiled a 3-5 record over 51 games, posting a 2.88 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 75 innings. Despite the strong numbers, Sanchez found himself in unaffiliated independent leagues in 2014, with New Jersey of the Can-Am League and Somerset of the Atlantic League.

“Once you’re out of affiliated ball, it’s hard to come back,” he said. “There are a lot of good players out there and there’s a lot of competition, so I’m really blessed to have this opportunity. Thanks to the Marlins; they saw me and they gave me this opportunity and I came to spring training and I did my best. It’s been a long road.”

Sanchez has endured an up-and-down start to his tenure with New Orleans, posting a 5.40 ERA over 8 1/3 innings this season, but he’s allowed just one run over his last 3 1/3 innings after a four-hit, three-run outing on April 21 against Iowa.

Like most of the Zephyrs bullpen, Sanchez been much better lately. New Orleans relievers have allowed just two earned runs over 11 innings in the last four games – three Zephyrs wins – with Sanchez working a scoreless frame in that span.

Sanchez had enjoyed the transition from the batter’s box to the pitching rubber, noting he feels like he has an advantage over hitters since he used to be just like them.

“The mentality as a pitcher, coming from being a position player, it helped me a lot. Sometimes I think as a hitter when I’m on the mound and I can think what the hitter is looking for. I use it as an advantage and it helps me a lot,” he said.

The Zephyrs are no strangers to converted pitchers. Chris Hatcher batted .167 in 17 games as a Zephyrs catcher in 2010, only to return the following season as a reliever. Hatcher went on to tie the franchise record with 49 saves over parts of three seasons, and now has established himself as a fixture in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen.

Sanchez does have an-bat this year, a double play ground-out, and said he misses hitting. But he’s a full-time pitcher now and will do anything it takes to get that long-awaited call to “The Show.”

“I love pitching, but I’m not going to lie, I miss hitting too,” he said. “But I’m playing the game that I love and it doesn’t matter what position I’m playing, I’m just happy.”

Wittgren factors big in Z’s comeback win

Nick Wittgren struck out the side and earned the win in his Triple-A debut on Wednesday. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren struck out the side and earned the win in his Triple-A debut on Wednesday. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

It’s been quite a whirlwind week for pitcher Nick Wittgren. On Tuesday, the 23-year-old was called up from Double-A Jacksonville to fill a role in the Zephyrs’ pitching staff, but about an hour after he arrived at the ballpark, the scheduled game was called due to rain.

Fast-forward about 15 hours and Wittgren found himself in the middle of a Zephyrs comeback victory.

The hard-throwing righty entered a tie game in the top of the 10th inning and promptly struck out the side on 13 pitches, including punchouts of top-prospects Addison Russell and Kris Bryant.

“I don’t really worry about who I’m facing,” Wittgren said. “I’m just focusing on facing a hitter and getting them out.”

With an over-powering fastball and well-placed breaking ball, Wittgren set John Andreoli with ease and then went to work on Russell. Wittgren mowed the short stop down on three pitches then blew away Bryant – Baseball America’s top prospect – on five pitches.

“I was just coming in wanting to throw strikes. Get ahead and let the off-speed stuff play. Go in and out, up and down, so I executed pitches and those are great hitters, everyone knows they are, and I just got away with a few pitches,” he said.

But his day wasn’t over after leaving the mound, and after a Jhonatan Solano lead-off double, Wittgren was forced to handle the bat in a key moment. After a quick meeting with manager Andy Haines down the third base line, Wittgren got the bunt down, but it was too hard and right back to pitcher Drake Britton, who easily nabbed Solano going to third.

“I got the bunt down, which I wanted to do, but it didn’t go where I wanted it to. So I was on first and I was like, ‘I haven’t done this since freshman year of junior college,’ so let’s see how this goes,” he said.

Jordany Valdespin singled and Austin Wates walked to get Wittgren to third, where Haines delivered a very simple message.

“I got to third and [he] told me ‘fly ball, make sure you tag. Do not leave early.’ So I made sure I didn’t leave early and I just tried to make sure I didn’t get picked off or thrown out,” Wittgren said.

On the first pitch, Vinny Rottino – who had entered the game for Justin Bour as a pinch runner in the 9th inning – laced a fly ball to center field, deep enough for Wittgren to score easily and snap a three-game Zephyrs’ losing streak.

“Everyone picked it up the last few innings and a win’s a win,” he said. “Did what we needed to do in the 10th to win a ballgame.”

Nicolino, Urena ready for Triple-A debuts

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.”