LOS ANGELES: Justin Nicolino had the distinction of being the sixth man in the construction of a five-man pitching rotation this spring.
Like in musical chairs, he was the man without a seat. That meant another trip back to the minor leagues during spring training, where the left-hander has compiled a 47-23 record.
Even Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly admitted, “Not really quite sure that’s the right decision at this point.”
After a detour to Triple-A New Orleans, Nicolino found himself back with the Marlins because Jarred Cosart lost contact with the strike zone in three ignominious starts.
Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) he began to make a case for not going back in shutting out the Los Angeles Dodgers for 7 1/3 innings on two hits in a 2-0 victory at Dodger Stadium.
Nicolino, 24, got the best of a duel with Scott Kazmir, another finesse lefty who was seeking his 100th career win.
The outing was the longest by a Marlins pitcher this season and one out away from Nicolino’s career best.
It took a wild-and-whacky adventure by the bullpen to preserve the win, with Jose Urena recording the final five outs for an unlikely first career save.
After Nicolino exited, relievers Bryan Morris, Cody Ege and David Phelps each walked one of the next three Dodgers.
Phelps was ejected by plate umpire Todd Tichenor after complaining that his 3-2 pitch to pinch hitter Joc Pederson was called ball four.
Mattingly came out in Phelps’ defense and was also tossed, for the second time on this trip. Mattingly objected to ball-and-strike calls during Friday’s game at San Fancisco.
But Urena came on to strike out Yasiel Puig and got Adrian Gonzalez on a fly to right to leave the bases loaded.
It took five different pitchers to get through the eighth unscathed.
Urena got the Dodgers in order in the ninth to seal Miami’s fourth consecutive win.
The first seven innings were much less eventful with Nicolino in command.
“He’s the guy that baseball-wise you look and he’s not throwing 98 (mph), so everybody kind of passes those kind of guys by. But he’s a guy that just gets results,” Mattingly said.
Nicolino did what Cosart has been unable to do, getting ahead of hitters, working efficiently, keeping his pitch count manageable. He threw 99 pitches, 57 for strikes.
Nicolino allowed only a second-inning single to Corey Seager through six innings. Seager, celebrating his 22nd birthday, was the only Dodger to advance to second base. Enrique Hernandez and Gonzalez were the only others to reach, both on walks.
Justin Turner led off the seventh with a solid single to center. Unfazed, Nicolino was out of the inning four pitches later.
He got Seager to line out to left. Then Howie Kendrick bounced back to the mound for a made-to-order double play.
The performance was even better than Nicolino’s sterling major league debut June 20 when he shut out the Reds for seven innings on four hits in Cincinnati.
It was a different story in his next start, when the Dodgers pounded him for five runs in four innings at Marlins Park. That was the same game in which Giancarlo Stanton broke his left hamate and was lost for the season.
This time Nicolino was in command throughout, and Stanton contributed an RBI to the cause.
The Marlins spotted Nicolino a two-run lead before he took the mound, on four singles off Kazmir in the top of the first.
Stanton shattered his bat but still muscled the ball into left field for his 21st RBI in 18 career games in Dodger Stadium. Marcell Ozuna followed with another run-scoring hit to left.
They managed only one hit after that until J.T Realmuto and Chris Johnson had one-out singles in the sixth. But Adeiny Hechavarria bounced into a double play at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat.
That did push Kazmir’s pitch count to 113 and was his final pitch.
Christian Yelich was hit on the back of the right shoulder by a Kazmir fastball. It was an unenviable way to continue his streak of reaching base in every game, now at 20. It was a scary moment, but Yelich was able to turn away from the pitch boring in on his head.