DETROIT – Near the end of his more-or-less annual tour of Europe last October, after exploring the Spanish Riviera, the beauty of Istanbul, the nightlife of Venice and Barcelona, Ricky Nolasco was relaxing, with his former Marlins teammates A.J. Ramos and Giancarlo Stanton, at a Black Sea resort in Romania. And a decision was made.
“We were supposed to go to Serbia,” Nolasco said, “but we liked Romania so much, we decided to stay there.”
See? Nolasco absolutely can change directions.
On Wednesday, he’ll try to alter the course of his Twins career, too, when he takes the mound at Comerica Park in the season’s second game.
Nolasco is coming off the most disappointing season of his 10-year major league career, a season in which he posted the American League’s highest ERA (5.38) among pitchers with 150 or more innings. It’s a decline that Nolasco, now 32, didn’t take lightly.
“You get paid back during the season for the work you do in the offseason, and I worked hard this year,” Nolasco said. “Not like I didn’t last year, but we took it to another level this year.”
He and Stanton hired personal trainers with some new conditioning programs. They climbed steep sand dunes at Manhattan Beach near Los Angeles, and did more running than ever. They hired a chef to provide healthy, lean meals, and worked out six days a week.
“I feel really strong. I’ve got my legs under me, right from the start,” a visibly more muscular Nolasco said. “I was dedicated to our program this winter, and I think it’ll pay off.”
He and his coaches noticed more late movement on his fastball this spring, more sink on his sinker. His control seems sharper, too, with only five walks in 22 spring innings.
The new-look, newly-focused Nolasco impressed manager Paul Molitor, too, during a strong spring. Nolasco struck out 17 batters and posted a 3.97 ERA. He looked like a far more confident pitcher.
“I’ve been very pleased with Ricky. He came in here very determined to get off to a good start, both in how he prepared in the winter, and the competitive level he brought to his game here,” Molitor said. “The bottom line is, he’s pitched a lot better.”
It would be a huge relief to the Twins if he could pitch like a player worth a $49 million contract, which, when he signed the four-year deal 16 months ago, was the largest free-agent contract in franchise history. Unable to count on Nolasco, the Twins signed Ervin Santana last winter to an even bigger contract, one worth $55 million — and promptly lost him for half a season because of a steroids suspension.
“We’re counting on some people to step in now and fill those shoes,” General Manager Terry Ryan said after Santana was barred for 80 games. “We’ve said all along, we need to get Ricky headed in the right direction again.”
Wednesday’s start against the Tigers was supposed to be Santana’s Minnesota debut. Instead, it’s the first installment of what the Twins hope is Nolasco’s career restoration project.
“He trusts his stuff a lot more. He’s been aggressive from the start,” Molitor said. “I think he’s in a good place to start, and is ready to go.”
Actually, it’s in October when he’s usually “ready to go” — he’s helped organize three annual trips to Europe with his Florida friends, visits to cities like Paris, London and Amsterdam, and resorts like Marbella, Spain, and the Mediterranean island resort of Ibiza. Nolasco said the bachelor vacations are a blast, but he had to pass up the 2013 trip at the last minute.
“I couldn’t go that year because I was in the playoffs with the Dodgers,” Nolasco said. “Pretty good reason.”
If he can become the same pitcher who went 8-3 with a 3.52 ERA with Los Angeles that year, maybe he’ll someday have to cancel another European vacation.