TAMPA, Fla. -- Aaron Nola could’ve gone on and on about memories from his first career opening-day start last season. But all that really mattered was what occurred after his 68th pitch on that Thursday in Atlanta.
To recap: Nola got the first out of the sixth inning and was cruising along when Phillies manager Gabe Kapler took him out rather than letting him face the heart of the Braves’ order for a third time. The move backfired terribly, as lefty Hoby Milner allowed a two-run homer to Freddie Freeman in a 8-5 Phillies loss.
Consider it a learning experience for Kapler. But, it gave Nola a chance to assert himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter, too.
“We had a talk after the game,” Nola recalled Friday, “and he let me go the rest of the season. That’s what I want to do.”
A year later, with Nola set to start another opening day on Thursday against the Braves, there’s little doubt that Kapler will turn him loose.
Following that opening-day debacle, Nola completed at least six innings and threw 90 or more pitches in 22 starts. He logged 212 1/3 innings, fifth-most in the majors. He had the fourth-best ERA (2.37) and the fifth-lowest rate of walks and hits per inning pitched (0.97). He finished third in the voting for the National League Cy Young Award.
In short, he turned into an ace.
But this was perhaps the most impressive thing about Nola: He went through an order for the third time with as much effectiveness as he did the first. In fact, he was actually better in the later innings. He held opposing hitters to a .216 average and .627 OPS in their first at-bat, compared to a .194 average and .540 OPS in their third.
Nola’s secret: “Doing it more and more times,” he said. “The more and more you do it, the more you have knowledge about what you need to do to this hitter. Because, in the back of your mind, you’ve done it before. You’ve done this, faced a guy three times or four times, you’ve got to change things up. Sometimes you don’t. That’s the fun part.”
It didn’t take long for Kapler to recognize that Nola had the mentality to be successful in those situations. And Nola kept proving himself worthy of Kapler’s growing trust. Take, for instance, the July 4 game in which he got Manny Machado to pop out on his 103rd pitch to end the seventh inning of a one-run game against the Orioles.
“I think it’s the motor, the calmness,” Kapler said about why Nola is so tough later in games. “No situation is too big for him. I knew about the change-up and the curveball and the heater. What I didn’t know was how cool and calm he is at all times. He’s a calming influence on all of us.”
The atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday afternoon figures to be anything but calm.
“Probably going to be packed,” said Nola, who got his final tuneup Friday by throwing 91 pitches in five-plus innings in a minor-league game at the Carpenter Complex. “Pitching an opening day over there [in Philadelphia] is going to be pretty special and awesome.”
Meanwhile, Nola is crossing other firsts off his list. He recently posed for his first Sports Illustrated cover, along with Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and J.T. Realmuto. It was another reminder that expectations are high for a rebuilt Phillies team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011, the year Nola graduated from high school.
“We have a team to make the playoffs, but we’ve still got to go out there and win,” Nola said. “But expectations are better than no expectations. That’s going to raise our game up, I believe. We’ve got All-Stars, MVPs, Cy Youngs. We’ve got 'em on our team. But, we’ve still got to go out there and play and compete. There’s no guarantees.”
So, if Freeman or any other hitter in the middle of the Braves’ lineup, comes to the plate in a key spot late in the game Thursday, Nola will be ready.
“No doubt,” he said. “Every time, as much as I can.”