CLEARWATER, Fla. - Aaron Nola’s first three major-league seasons were filled with promise, but the righthander knew that he would need a third pitch to accompany his fastball and curveball if he was to elevate his game to an elite level.

So before the 2018 season, Nola focused his time in spring training on refining his change-up. A season earlier, Nola doubled his usage of the pitch. But now, he wanted it to be effective. It was. And Nola finished that season as a Cy Young finalist.

“I think something other than a fastball or curveball is important, especially for a starting pitcher,” Nola said after striking out six batters without a walk on Friday against the Braves while allowing two runs and six hits in two-plus innings.

Two years later, Nick Pivetta is in Clearwater with the same plan. The righthander is competing this spring for the final spot in the starting rotation, and his ability to develop a change-up could be what determines if he’s a starter. He threw the pitch just 21 times last season.

“It’s a feel pitch,” Nola said. “It’s probably to some guys one of the harder pitches to throw in an arsenal, in my opinion. It’s not something that you can just spin really hard like a curveball or slider or something like that. It’s something you have to practice in throwing sessions and on the back fields and in bullpens and game situations. I know Pivetta is doing the same thing. It’s all about how good and confident the pitch is.”

Nola threw his change-up for 19.65-percent of his pitches in 2018, up from 8.54-percent in 2016. He has sprinkled it in just enough over the last two seasons to keep hitters from sitting on his fastball and curveball. Pivetta has a powerful fastball and has flashed an elite curveball. Those two pitches could make Pivetta a viable reliever. But he wants to start. And he’ll need a third pitch to do so.

“I think sometimes that last pitch that you develop really makes a difference because now it gives you a lot of different looks,” manager Joe Giradi said. “I think Greg Maddux took off when the cutter came into play. So now he had a fastball that ran back in on righties and away from lefties. He had a cutter that went in on lefties, and it looked exactly the same until the end. They talk about pitching in lanes, and it looks the same and then they go different directions at the end. The speed is similar. I think it’s really important.”

Glimpse of the future

The Phillies will spend the next few weeks in Clearwater trying to determine their infield for this season, but they took a peek on Friday at what their alignment could look like in the future. Shortstop Bryson Stott and third baseman Alec Bohm, the team’s last two first-round picks, played the final four innings on Friday as the Phillies improved their spring record to 6-1. Stott grounded into a force out in the ninth to bring home the winning run.

“It’s interesting seeing these kids together,” Girardi said. It’s been kind of fun to watch them and how well they’ve played. I’ve always thought that sometimes your record is a lot of times a reflection on what your young kids do, what your minor-league system is. Because a lot of times, they’re finishing the games, especially early on, and if they’re scoring runs and adding to the lead and holding the lead, you give them a lot of credit."

Liriano impresses

Francisco Liriano logged a scoreless inning for his first work of the spring. The lefthander is in camp on a minor-league deal, but could have a hard time making the team as lefthanders Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez appear to be locks for the roster. This will be the first year that pitchers have to face a minimum of three batters.

“It’s who can get both out that become really important because you can’t mix and match like you used too,” Girardi said.

Liriano, 36, struck out one and walked one in his inning of work. The 14-year veteran transitioned last season to a relief role with Pittsburgh and had success against both right handed and lefthanded hitters, which could help him earn one of the eight bullpen roles.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen him. He was really good today,” Girardi said. “He’s a pro’s pro. He knows how to pitch. He threw some good sliders and some good change-ups today as well. His inning was pretty quick.”

Up next

Zack Wheeler will make his first start of spring on Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays. The game will be broadcasted by WIP-FM (94.1). Girardi said Wheeler will pitch two innings with a pitch count of roughly 35 pitches.

“He’s all good. He’s ready to go,” Girardi said. “I’m anxious to watch him pitch.”