CLEARWATER, Fla. — Aaron Nola set the tone quickly on Sunday. In his last Grapefruit League start before opening day on April 8, the Phillies right-handed pitcher struck out the side in the first inning of an 8-7 victory over the Detroit Tigers. He allowed a home run in the second to Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson, but quickly bounced back, inducing a groundout from left fielder Willi Castro and striking out third baseman Harold Castro to end the frame.
Nola retired the next 12 Tigers he faced, and by the end of the 5⅓ innings, he had nine strikeouts. Nola wasn’t just throwing harder than he usually does — his four-seam fastball clocked in at 94 mph a few times, and last year averaged 92.9 mph — he was also mixing his pitches well, folding in his two-seam fastball, his cutter, his knuckle curve, and his changeup. He didn’t introduce his sinker until the fourth inning, when he used it to strike out the Tigers’ two-hole hitter, Robbie Grossman.
This outing set a decidedly different tone than Nola’s other three spring starts. Entering Sunday, the righty had an 8.00 ERA in nine innings pitched. In his previous start on March 29 against the Yankees, he allowed four earned runs through four innings. By the time his day was done Sunday, he’d allowed only one hit — the home run to Torkelson — and no walks. He has one walk all spring with 20 strikeouts.
His next outing will be in Citizens Bank Park, against the A’s, for his fifth opening-day start.
“It felt good to get into the sixth inning,” Nola said. “I threw all of my pitches, got ahead in the count. Got some early outs. Had a lot of quick innings.”
Nola is coming off a down year. He posted the second-highest ERA of his career last season — 4.63 through 32 starts — and his 82 two-strike hits were most in the National League in 2021. He had a bit of bad luck, but there’s no denying that he struggled to make good pitches when he needed to.
Needless to say, a bounce-back from him in 2022 would make a big impact, especially on a Phillies team that is short on starting pitching depth, and is coming off of an abbreviated spring training that could lead to some injuries.
Nola said that after Zack Wheeler’s season last year, which earned him a second-place finish in the NL Cy Young award voting, he wasn’t sure if he’d make the opening-day start in 2022. But this season he and his teammates have a bigger goal in mind: ending a playoff drought they believe has gone on far too long.
“(We want to end it) super bad, and we’ve got the team to do it,” Nola said. “We haven’t been to the playoffs since we came up. We’re all waiting for it. We have the team to do it. We’ve just got to put it all together.”
Reliever Connor Brogdon threw a side on Sunday. Girardi said he will probably pitch in a game on Tuesday. They still haven’t made a decision on whether they’ll carry him on the roster.
RHP James Norwood, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres on March 30, hasn’t yet thrown in a game for the Phillies. He had to leave camp for personal reasons. Girardi said he isn’t sure when Norwood will be back in camp, which could compromise his ability to make the roster.
LHP Ryan Sherriff has been dealing with some biceps tendinitis, according to Girardi. He hasn’t pitched since Monday. Girardi said he will be playing catch on Monday.
LHP José Alvarado, who was sidelined with neck stiffness, pitched an inning in the Phillies’ Grapefruit League game on Sunday. He allowed one walk, induced a double play, and recorded one strikeout. He hit 100 and 99 mph a few times.