Ricky Nolasco gets first Twins turn

One of the rites of spring training is the announcement of the Opening Day starter, yet the Twins didn’t really trumpet Ricky Nolasco’s appointment Monday with the Chicago White Sox.

They just set up their pitching staff during spring training and left anyone who was interested to figure it out for themselves, as if it was a foregone conclusion. Even when the Twins had Cy Young Award winning Johan Santana on their roster, manager Ron Gardenhire would let it be known — sometimes as early as February — who would be on the mound for game No. 1.

But as soon as Nolasco signed his four-year, $48 million contract on Dec. 3 — the richest free-agent contract in club history — the Twins knew who was getting the ball to start the season, to lead the Twins rotation.

“I think that’s what they brought me in here for,” Nolasco even said in mid-March.

That day is now here. The Twins begin their 54th season Monday at U.S. Cellular Field, and Nolasco becomes the 28th pitcher to start on Opening Day for them. When Nolasco takes the mound, he will carry the hopes of an organization pummeled by 291 losses over the previous three seasons, embarrassed by having one of the worst starting rotations in baseball over the past couple of years and anxious to mollify a fanbase swelling with apathy.

Nolasco is here to help stop the slide.

“It means a lot. I know what I was brought here to do, and it’s an honor to take the ball every fifth day,” said Nolasco, 89-75 in his eight-year major league career. “It’s an honor, for them to think that way of me. So I’m just going to go out there and do what I have done my whole career, and that is to keep my team in the game to win it.”

Nolasco is not the most loquacious fellow — and has been all business during media sessions — but his new teammates describe him as easygoing but meticulous when it comes to preparation.

“He’s a professional in the way he goes about his business,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “He doesn’t say much. He just goes out there and gets it done or he finds ways to get it done. He knows what to do out there and has a game plan.”

His approach has worked for him. He broke in with the Marlins in 2006, as a 23-year-old on a staff that included Dontrelle Willis, Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Scott Olsen. Nolasco was the second oldest of the group, and he and Johnson pitched several years on some Miami teams that took their lumps. Along the way, Nolasco developed into a pitcher who is durable, (he has made at least 31 starts in five seasons), doesn’t give up the long ball (only 17 in 199⅓ innings last season) and can strike out a batter or two (7.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his career). Nothing pops out at you about Nolasco, but his numbers add up to a very solid pitcher.

For a team that lacked solid starting pitching, Nolasco was exactly what they were looking for during last year’s free agency period.

“He’s got a lot of good pitches,” said Twins outfielder Jason Kubel, who is 1-for-9 against Nolasco. “He’s all over the strike zone. He can cut it in and then bring it back over the plate. You don’t know which one it’s going to be. And he has good offspeed pitches to keep you off balance.

“He’s going to be a big help for us this year, and we need that. We expect a big year.”

There are staff aces, and there’s a smaller set of elite pitchers considered true aces. The latter type is hard to acquire and harder to keep.

Nolasco is not on the elite end of starter, but he is definitely the Twins ace. In addition to boosting the rotation now he also bridges the gap between the present and future, as the Twins wait for one of the top pitching prospects, hard-throwing righthander Alex Meyer, to develop at Class AAA Rochester. He also can serve as a mentor to righthander Kyle Gibson, this year’s No. 5 starter.

“Everyone would love to have a clear cut No. 1 guy that everyone looks at,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said. “It is hard to find those guys. You pretty much have to draft and develop your own, unless you’re fortunate to outbid everyone during the free-agent process.

“The next best thing for us to improve this team is to get some major league veteran guys who are still young and can be part of the core of what we are trying to do. Is he a prototypical No. 1? No, I don’t think anyone around the league looks at Ricky as a No. 1 starter. Is he our best starter? Our most dependable starter? That’s how we are looking at it going into the season.

“We think he’s earned the right to be the Opening Day starter.”

Nolasco went 0-2 with a 5.50 ERA during spring training, but has made it clear that he uses spring games as a training tool. He said Wednesday, his final outing before the opener, that he is healthy, that all his pitches are working and that he is ready to start the season.

On Monday, the Twins will get to see just what they have in Nolasco.

“Everyone is excited and anxious to get going,” Nolasco said. “It’s always fun and exciting to get out there. You get antsy and it’s just good to get the season underway.”

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