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Nicasio's strong work out of 'pen draws praise

Marte still bothered by lower back issue; upcoming rotation TBD
MLB.com

CINCINNATI -- The Pirates signed Juan Nicasio last offseason knowing he could be either a starter or reliever. This year, they've learned that his future is in their bullpen.

Since moving to the bullpen full time in late June, Nicasio has a 2.81 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 48 innings. He's held opponents to a .232 average and a .657 OPS, and he's struck out at least one batter in a Major League-high 29 straight appearances dating back to July 2.

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CINCINNATI -- The Pirates signed Juan Nicasio last offseason knowing he could be either a starter or reliever. This year, they've learned that his future is in their bullpen.

Since moving to the bullpen full time in late June, Nicasio has a 2.81 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 48 innings. He's held opponents to a .232 average and a .657 OPS, and he's struck out at least one batter in a Major League-high 29 straight appearances dating back to July 2.

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Nicasio has been a Swiss Army knife in relief, pitching multiple innings and defusing jams while also working in high-leverage situations. The 30-year-old is eligible for salary arbitration this offseason, and he should be a key part of Pittsburgh's 2017 bullpen.

"He's just a bulldog. When he gets out there, he's going to compete," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He wants the ball in big situations and he's carried some huge innings for us here. … He's in a good spot, probably in a good spot for the rest of his career to remain in the bullpen."

After a strong spring, Nicasio struggled as a starter, going 5-5 with a 5.05 ERA in 12 outings.

"I'm pitching better in the bullpen," Nicasio said. "Nothing's changed in my mind. I try to be the same. … When you're relieving, you go all out. You know you're only going to face three hitters sometimes. You throw everything you have."

Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle have often praised Nicasio's strength and his willingness to take the ball every day. As evidence: Despite spending nearly three months as a starter, Nicasio will finish the year fourth on the team in appearances. He has thrown 111 1/3 innings, more than either of the last two seasons, in 44 games.

"I'm feeling good," Nicasio said. "My arm's feeling very good."

Trainer's room
Starling Marte said his problematic lower back was feeling better Sunday, his 14th straight game out of the Pirates' starting lineup. He had been hoping to play in one half of the doubleheader on Saturday, but the injury flared up again and kept him in the dugout.

With 13 games remaining after Sunday, is it time to consider shutting down Marte for the rest of the season?

"We're still working through the evaluation process and identifying where is the best path with him," Huntington said. "The last thing we want to do is put somebody back out there when they're not ready to compete and they could do some damage or worse damage. But if there's not a significant risk for damage, these guys want to play."

Rotation remains unclear
Veteran right-hander Ryan Vogelsong has struggled over his last four starts, putting up a 10.19 ERA during that stretch after posting a 2.48 ERA in his previous five starts. Though Vogelsong said he discovered a mechanical flaw, it's possible he could be bumped out of the rotation.

Hurdle declined to reveal the Pirates' starters for their upcoming series against the Brewers.

"It's hard to walk away from his first stretch of starts for us. But it certainly is a valid question as to who gives us the best chance to win the next time or two times from now when his rotation spot comes up," Huntington said. "Let's get through four games in 46 hours and see where we are as we head into Milwaukee."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Pittsburgh Pirates