Tom Koehler making strong case for Marlins' fifth rotation spot

After another solid outing, right-hander Tom Koehler is showing why he may be the favorite to land in the fifth spot of the Miami Marlins rotation.

Tom Koehler struck out four in four innings against the Tigers on Sunday afternoon.

David Goldman / AP

JUPITER, Fla. -- Hours before Miami's game against the Detroit Tigers on Sunday, Marlins manager Mike Redmond talked about guys needing to step up if they wanted one of the few remaining Opening Day roster spots.

Right-hander Tom Koehler did just that, pitching four scoreless innings in a 3-1 loss Sunday afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium.

"We talked about opportunity and we talked about guys wanting it, and he's gone out there and pitched the way that he needs to pitch," Redmond said. "That spot's going to be big for us, and he's definitely gone out there and done what he's needed to do at this point."

Koehler, seen as the frontrunner for the fifth spot in the rotation, required 47 pitches (35 strikes) to retire 12 of 13 batters faced. His lone blemish came on former American League MVP Miguel Cabrera's single up the middle with two outs in the first.

The 27-year-old struck out four hitters -- two looking and two swinging. He credits his fastball command for his success, something he and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez worked on.

When ahead in the count, batters hit just .196 in 2013. They posted a .276 clip when Koehler fell behind.

"I felt good, did a good job of getting ahead, locating pitches for a strike, really just getting ahead," said Koehler, who faced a three-ball count just once on Sunday. "That's kind of what put me in a position to expand the zone a little bit in certain counts.

"It was all about just being able to get ahead and work all the pitches. That's the biggest key with me. Always been when I get ahead and get my pitches for a strike I have quality games."

In his rookie campaign, Koehler finished 5-10 with a 4.41 ERA in 29 games (23 starts). Over five September starts, he went 2-1 with a 3.14 ERA.

It took an adjustment period for him to work out how batters reacted to his pitches and sequence. At times, he cruised through a game but let it slip away with a rough inning.

"Last year -- I'd never seen those guys before," Koehler said. "I had to trust solely on what the catchers were calling and the scouting reports. I had no eyes of my own. I think this year having gone through the league one time little bit of a better feel of what guys' tendencies are."

Redmond has also noticed the difference in Koehler's comfort level and confidence. So far, it has turned out tangible results.

Over three spring appearances, Koehler has given up a run and four hits in seven innings. Sunday's outing dropped his ERA to 1.29.

"Tommy pitched great, and he has all spring," Redmond said. "He looks like a different guy from last year to this year. He looked good. He looked strong.

"He threw some nice breaking balls, pounded the strike zone. He did exactly what he needed to do. It's been a real pleasure to watch him go out there and work this spring."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.