Juan Nicasio was exceptional during spring training for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, the harder part comes as he tries to carry that over to games that count.
Nicasio makes his Pirates debut Wednesday night when the Pirates try to complete a three-game season-opening sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park.
Nicasio signed a one-year deal with the Pirates in December with the expectation that he would bolster an already strong bullpen. However, the right-hander struck out 24 over 15 scoreless innings this spring and allowed only 10 hits to earn the fifth starter spot ahead of Ryan Vogelsong.
"When you've been a starter in the past, and you move to the bullpen, in my heart, I think I can be a starter again," Nicasio told the team's official website. "I prayed to God to give me the opportunity to be a starter, because I think I can pitch as a starter."
Nicasio, who made 53 relief appearances for the Los Angeles Dodgers lastseason, hasn't been a full-time starter since 2014 with Colorado.
St. Louis will counter with right-hander Mike Leake, who signed a five-year, $80-million contract for the richest deal the Cardinals have ever given to a pitcher. He was brought in to help fill the void left by Lance Lynn, who will miss the entire 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in November.
Leake pitched for Cincinnati from 2010 to 2015 before being traded to San Francisco on July 30. In 30 combined starts with the Reds and Giants last season, the 28-year-old went 11-10 with a 3.70 ERA and 119 strikeouts over 192 innings.
He posted a 9-5 record with Cincinnati but struggled to find consistency after the trade, going 2-5 with a 4.07 ERA in nine starts with San Francisco.
Leake struck out 24 over 20 innings this spring, tossing four scoreless innings in his most recent outing.
"I think those games are usually the ones you kind of put on the shelf (as)what you try to do every time," Leake said after his final spring start. "If you're pumping strikes and attacking guys, that's the first motto of a pitcher, I guess you could say."
Having spent the majority of his career in the NL Central, Leake is no stranger to the Pirates. He's won his last seven decisions against them, going 17 starts since his last loss May 5, 2012. Leake is 8-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 24 starts in the series.
The right-hander has been particularly effective against Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, holding them to a combined 9 for 52 with 14 strikeouts.
Polanco, though, celebrated his new five-year contract by scoring the winning run inPittsburgh's 6-5, 11-inning win Tuesday. Jordy Mercer singled home Polanco from second with one out in the 11th.
Mercer finished with two hits and has two RBI during Pittsburgh's 2-0 start. He hit just .197 with four RBIs in 18 games last April.
''I think the spring training thing really helped me out,'' Mercer said. ''It's kind of the first time where I didn't really have to fight for position. I could work on some things and see different pitches and do some different things. It was a different spring training for me and it's bleeding into the season as well.''
The Cardinals left 10 runners on in a 4-1 loss in the opener, and are 3 for 22 with runners in scoring position through two games.
''We had some strikeouts again but I thought we had a better approach at the plate today,'' manager Mike Matheny said. ''Better execution, not necessarily, but guys taking better at-bats today.''