CLEARWATER, Fla. - There will be no quick hook for Aaron Nola this opening day. As long as he's effective and getting the job done, he's staying in the game longer than 68 pitches. There are no restrictions.
"Absolutely none," pitching coach Chris Young said.
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With Young looking on and Andrew Knapp doing the catching, Nola made his final start of the spring in a minor-league game at Carpenter Complex on Friday. The Phillies chose to have Nola make his final tune-up in a controlled setting to ensure that he get his pitch count up and get into the sixth inning. He threw 91 pitches and left in the middle of the sixth.
Nola's next outing will come Thursday at Citizens Bank Park against the Atlanta Braves. It will be Nola's second straight opening day start against the Braves. Last year's came in Atlanta and still lives in infamy. Nola was cruising along with a 5-0 lead in the sixth inning when rookie manager Gabe Kapler went to his bullpen and started playing the matchup game. The bullpen ended up blowing the lead, the Phillies lost, 8-5, and Kapler was roasted for taking his starter out at 68 pitches. Even the soft-spoken Nola was miffed.
As it turned out, Kapler's controversial decision to hook Nola on opening day turned out to be a growth moment in the two men's relationship.
"For sure," Nola confirmed. "We had a talk after the game and he let me go the rest of the season. That's what I want to do."
For the season, Nola ended up pitching 212 1/3 innings, fifth most in the majors. He finished fourth in the majors in ERA (2.37) and quality starts (25) and fifth in WHIP (0.97) on his way to a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. He threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. Only St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas (71 percent) did that more often.
Armed with a new four-year, $45 million contract, Nola, 25, comes into the new season with high expectations. He challenged for the Cy Young Award last season and there's no reason he can't do it again this season.
But Nola is more concerned with team expectations. On paper, the Phils are the most improved club in baseball and they're expected to contend in the NL East. The improved roster and heightened expectations can be seen at the newsstands as Nola joins Rhys Hoskins and newcomers Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.
"We have a team to make the playoffs, but we still have to go out there and win and we still have to go out there and compete," Nola said. "Expectations are better than no expectations and that's going to raise our game up, I believe.
"You look at the type of guys we've got, All Stars, MVPs, Cy Young winners. We got ‘em on our team. But there are no guarantees. We still have to play and compete."
As opening day comes into focus, players are always eager to get spring training over and begin the season. There seems to be an extra bit of juice in the Phillies' clubhouse, a feel that this team knows it could be pretty good and it can't wait to get started and see how it all plays out.
"That's accurate, for sure," Nola said. "We're all excited and ready to go. It's not just that we have good ballplayers and good talent in there, I think they're good guys, too, and I think that makes more icing on the cake because the better guys you have, the better chemistry you have and the easier it is to play with each other."
Nola said he is right where he needs to be physically. He feels great. He's excited to see Citizens Bank Park sold out on Thursday and face Atlanta's Julio Teheran. This season of big expectations is almost here.
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