Marlins give Nolasco nod for opener
Right-hander will face Nationals on April 6 at Dolphin Stadium
JUPITER, Fla. -- Perform the way Ricky Nolasco did in 2008, and you are bound to be rewarded.
Add to that an impressive spring, and upstanding character, and you can understand why the 26-year-old right-hander has be named the Marlins' Opening Day starter.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez made it official on Friday, deciding to hand Nolasco the ball on April 6 against the Nationals at Dolphin Stadium.
"Ricky was outstanding for us last year, 200-something innings," Gonzalez said. "He earned that, for me.
"I don't think it's a big deal, Opening Day starters. But the pitchers do. I think for what he did last year, I think he deserved that opportunity."
Nolasco, the oldest pitcher in the rotation, got the nod over Josh Johnson, who will take the mound in the second game.
Chris Volstad will pitch the third game.
"I'm very pleased with them," pitching coach Mark Wiley said. "I'd be pleased with them in any order, but I think that's the right order right now, with where we're at.
"They are all three guys with multiple pitches, and they throw them all for strikes. They have consistent command."
Nolasco actually was slated to start against the Orioles at Roger Dean Stadium on Thursday, but he was changed to give some relief candidates work.
Instead, Nolasco traveled to Port St. Lucie to pitch in a Minor League game against the Mets. The right-hander threw five innings and 85 pitches in less-than-ideal situations. He had trouble with the mound and, after the game, threw some more pitches in the bullpen.
Nolasco returned to Jupiter late in the afternoon, and he spoke with reporters about being tabbed for the first game.
"I'm definitely happy and excited about that," Nolasco said. "It's something I've been working towards. Every guy in here, it's something they take pride in doing. I'm not going to dwell on what I did last year. I went home this offseason and made myself even hungrier to come out here and try to do it again. I'm wanting to improve on what I did last year.
"I want to thank Fredi for that opportunity to go out there and try to lead this ball club the first game of the year."
Gonzalez didn't reveal the fourth or fifth starters. He said they are still competing.
Anibal Sanchez and Andrew Miller are in vying for those spots, but because of a few early season off days, the Marlins don't plan on adding their fifth starter until April 18.
In 2008, the Marlins' rotation was in desperate need of a lift, especially early in the year when starters struggled to work deep into games. Nolasco stepped up with a breakout season, posting a 15-8 record with a 3.52 ERA and 212 1/3 innings pitched. He struck out 186 and walked just 42, establishing himself as one of the top right-handers in the National League.
Getting the ball on Opening Day is a thing of pride for Nolasco.
"It has to do with pride," Nolasco said. "It's something that you don't get to do often. There are only going to be 30 guys in the world this year who are going to be able to do Opening Day starts. At the same time, you can't take away from guys like Volstad and J.J."
The Marlins have a good problem, since many in the league consider Johnson worthy of being the ace.
The 24-year-old rebounded from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2007, and he was back in the rotation in July of last year. In 14 starts, the 6-fooot-7 Oklahoma native was 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA.
"J.J. could be that guy," Gonzalez said of a No. 1. "So can Volstad. But what Ricky did last year -- those 212 [1/3] innings, the wins -- he deserves that spot."
Volstad also was added to the rotation in July of last year, and in his rookie season he finished 6-4 with a 2.88 ERA in 15 games, including 14 starts.
On Friday morning, Gonzalez called Nolasco, Johnson and Volstad into a meeting, where he told the pitchers the order.
When word came that Gonzalez wanted to speak to them, Nolasco joked to Johnson: "J.J., we're going to get sent down."
Volstad has come a long way in a year. Last spring, the 6-foot-8 Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., native knew he would start off at Double-A.
"It's kind of hard to believe, but I'm real excited about it," said Volstad, who had been speculated to pitch third since Spring Training started. "It's never settled in until Fredi told us this morning. I'm ready to get going."
Volstad was happy for Nolasco.
"It's a huge honor," the 22-year-old right-hander said. "He did everything he needed to. Last year, with the season he had. This spring, he's pitched great."
Like Johnson, Sanchez returned from an injury last year. The Venezuela native had right-shoulder surgery in 2007, and he was in the rotation in July. He made 10 starts, and was 2-5 with a 5.57 ERA. He's continuing to regain his command and build up his stamina.
Miller, the lone lefty in the group, made 20 starts and 29 appearances in 2008. Acquired from the Tigers in December 2007 as part of the Dontrelle Willis/Miguel Cabrera trade, the 23-year-old was 6-10 with a 5.87 ERA.
Miller is refining his delivery and working on a changeup this spring. He has the raw talent to be an elite pitcher.
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.