The curtain opened at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday afternoon, and the Phillies provided their rejuvenated fan base with a glimpse of what could be in 2019. The team that finished last in hits, 24th in extra-base hits, and 21st in runs scored a year ago powered its way to double-digit runs en route to a 10-4, season-opening victory over the Atlanta Braves.
Even with nothing more than an intentional walk from Bryce Harper in his much anticipated Phillies debut, the offense became the story, thanks to a leadoff home run from Andrew McCutchen in the first inning, a three-run shot from Maikel Franco in the sixth, and Rhys Hoskins’ first career grand slam in the seventh.
All that brawn made Aaron Nola’s second straight opening-day start a bit of a footnote, and the Phillies’ staff ace entirely understood. He was merely very good, rather than great, as he was so often a season ago, when he thrust his way into the National League Cy Young Award race with Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer.
“You’re not going to be dominating all the time, and you’re going to have games where you have to battle through innings and battle through hitters more times than not,” Nola said. “The second inning, I had to battle. I walked three in that inning, and they scattered a couple of hits. I’m going to run into those kinds of outings, but our hitters were off the charts today. I mean 10 runs, what else can I say about that? Pretty awesome.”
Nola’s outing was an interesting juxtaposition to his season opener a year ago against the Braves in Atlanta. That was the game that became the focal point of manager Gabe Kapler’s turbulent first week with the Phillies, because he removed Nola in the sixth inning after just 68 pitches, with a 5-0 lead. The Phillies’ bullpen imploded, and what should have been an opening-day win dissolved into a surreal defeat.
“Two totally different starts,” Nola said. “I was cruising through five innings and had an out in the sixth, and really I wasn’t cruising as much today.”
This time, however, Nola made it through six innings, and he allowed just a single run on two hits. He needed 99 pitches to get through the sixth, but Kapler said he still considered leaving his ace in the game.
“I think the thing that I point to is how much trust has been established,” Kapler said. “He’s a guy that even if he doesn’t look like he’s at his best … before you know it he’s in the seventh inning and almost getting stronger.”
Nola walked a career-high five batters and allowed his only run in the second inning on an RBI single to right field by Nick Markakis. Catcher J.T. Realmuto helped his pitcher big time by throwing out Markakis at second base after Harper’s throw home was late.
“In the second inning, he just lost his command a little bit,” Kapler said. “I think he was right around the plate. There were some near misses in there, but that wasn’t his best inning.”
Nola was not that disturbed by the walks because he felt he was throwing the ball well. His fastball was consistently clocked at 95 miles per hour, he threw some nasty curveballs, and once he navigated his way through the 29-pitch second inning, he allowed just one hit and three baserunners the rest of way.
“After that second inning, he was nails,” Realmuto said. “Quick innings, keeping guys off balance, not a lot of good swings on him. He definitely built strength as the game went on.”
Kapler’s quick hook a year ago was followed by a conversation between Nola and the manager. Now, it is clear that Kapler loves the baseball in his ace’s hand late in games.
“He had some walks, but then he collected himself, and he put us on his back,” Kapler said. “He wants the ball, and he wants to go out and take down the biggest innings, and one of the things we learned last year is that Aaron Nola can put a team on his back.”
Nola did not have to put the Phillies on his back in this game, because the offense thumped the Braves with power from the top, the middle, and the bottom of the order. Still, his hitters were appreciative. When Hoskins finished recounting the intentional walk to Harper that preceded his grand slam on a 1-0 pitch from Luke Jackson, he paused for a second.
“Something we haven’t talked about yet, obviously, is Aaron Nola,” Hoskins said. “That was pretty standard out of Nola. He scuffled a little bit, and then he settled in and did what he does.”
That was nothing new for Nola, which is why the focal point on this opening day became the Phillies’ new-and-improved offense.
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