LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It might have been the easiest decision Gabe Kapler had to make this spring. The manager announced Friday evening the identity of the starting pitcher for the Phillies later this month in the season’s first game.
“Pause for dramatic effect,” Kapler said. “Aaron Nola will be our opening-day starter. I thought long and hard about that one.”
Nola entered spring training as the team’s obvious No. 1 starter and the announcement that he will start against the Atlanta Braves on March 28 at Citizens Bank Park was a mere formality. And these announcements could become a spring-training tradition as Nola signed an extension last month that could keep him with the Phillies through 2023. The Phillies could have an easy decision to make each year.
“A deserving pitcher and a deserving person,” Kapler said. “It’s really nice to see someone who is ultra-prepared, who doesn’t give an inch away, earn two consecutive opening-day starts.”
The 25-year-old Nola would join Chris Short and Brett Myers as the only homegrown Phillies pitchers in the last 55 years to make consecutive opening-day starts. The right-hander, Kapler said, is “the type of personality and the type of talent that you bet on.”
His 2.37 ERA last season ranked second in the National League, and he led all major-league starters in WAR with a 10.5 mark. His opponent batting average (.197) was the second-best single-season mark ever by a Phillies pitcher.
“We start by evaluating talent, and then the next thing we evaluate is aptitude and what somebody can do with that talent. That’s sort of what gives us excitement about the growth,” Kapler said. “The fact that Nola is a very, very young pitcher, so there’s not a lot of wear and tear. The fact that he takes extraordinary care of himself. And the fact that his aptitude is off the charts, coupled with what he did last year, gives us a lot of optimism that there’s improvement there, there’s ceiling there, he hasn’t had his best year necessarily.”
Bryce Harper will make his spring-training debut on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd at Spectrum Field. Harper will be the Phillies’ designated hitter against Toronto and take one or two at-bats, Kapler said. Harper is expected to play in right field on Monday at home against Tampa Bay.
The Phillies introduced Harper last Saturday at a news conference on top of the first-base dugout. He spent the next week taking batting practice and playing in simulated games as he worked his way toward playing in a Grapefruit League game. Harper said he would like to have 40 or 45 at-bats before the start of the regular season. The Phillies will have the chance to get him close to that mark before leaving Florida.
“There’s one other guy who I’ve seen take things so seriously like a live batting-practice session on a backfield against minor-league pitching, and that’s Clayton Kershaw,” Kapler said. “Clayton Kershaw will go down on a rehab assignment and he’s pitching in that contest like it’s Game 7 of the World Series. No lack of intensity, same focus, and Bryce is kind of similarly wired. I’m excited to see what he looks like in his first spring-training game.”