As Alan Dunn watched Aaron Nola fail in the majors last month, he thought of a bushy-haired freshman at Louisiana State. Nola faced a ranked Mississippi State team on a Sunday afternoon at Baton Rouge, La., in 2012. It was his first-ever SEC start.
"He gave up five runs before we had a chance to sit down in the dugout," said Dunn, the LSU pitching coach and a mentor to Nola. "Here's a young kid. How is he going to respond?"
Nola completed six innings. He allowed one more run, for a total of six. He never allowed more than five runs in game again at LSU.
These are the anecdotes those around Nola cling to as the young pitcher fights a game that made him a millionaire before he graduated college. It never looked hard for Nola, which has prompted the search for answers to the 23-year-old righthander's sudden decline.
"And that's why we all talk about the mental part," Dunn said. "That's why I think he is so strong in that. He's going to figure this thing out. He's going to become a better pitcher, I think, once he returns. This is all a learning experience. He will take this as a learning experience. He'll figure some things out just because of the will to get it done."
The Phillies prioritized the development of their young pitchers this season, and that mission will be incomplete even if Nola returns from his elbow injury to start two or three games at the end of September. They will enter next season with Nola as an unknown. They are less sure of the pitcher now than they were when 2016 began.
The elbow injury, for now, is not considered serious. Nola said he did not pitch through pain until his last start, when his fastball velocity dipped. But there have always been questions about Nola's mechanics; a veteran National League hitter wondered earlier this season how long it would be until Nola succumbed to an arm ailment.
Pitching coach Bob McClure has tinkered with Nola's timing, which once produced an effective downward plane on his fastball. This winter, the Phillies are likely to emphasize upper-body strength with Nola.
All pitchers, no matter the mechanics or body type, are at risk.
"That was never a concern for me," said Dunn, who spent 14 seasons as a coach in the Cubs system before four more with the Orioles. "The thing he was able to do here so consistently was repeat what he did in his mechanics. If you're repeating those, you have a chance to remain healthy. He's always been a guy who has been a strike thrower.
"There never has been anything from a mechanics standpoint that I was ever concerned about him tearing down."
Dunn said his personal theory about Nola is a simple one: The game is hard. It is taxing on the body, especially for a wiry 23-year-old pitcher. The physical strain prevented Nola from repeating what made him so good so quick.
He sees someone with the aptitude to emerge.
"I love the kid," Dunn said. "He's awesome, man. He's going to have a phenomenal career. This is just going to be one of those times in his career that will make him a better pitcher.
"If there's anybody I would put on making it happen, it's definitely him."
While Matt Klentak did not consummate a trade at the Aug. 1 deadline, the talks he had with other teams along with a high amount of movement elsewhere provided the first-year general manager a view into the current market.
After studying the transactions, he shared one observation.
"The industry is shifting," Klentak said. "They're paying a lot for elite bullpen arms. We learned that a little bit last offseason ourselves, and I think that's been reinforced through some of the trades this year. It makes sense. Dominant bullpen guys in the back end of the game give you a better chance to win."
Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos are not yet considered "elite bullpen arms," but another two months of success in high-leverage situations could raise their profile - and other teams' interest. The Phillies dealt closer Ken Giles last winter, and they could flip another bullpen arm if the offer is right.
1 Cameron Rupp: Yes, his defensive misgivings are documented, but Rupp's offensive production has put the Phillies in a solid situation. They can enter next season with him as the starter while Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp gain polish in the minors. They can trade Rupp if another team values him higher.
2 Odubel Herrera: Major League Baseball has repeatedly warned Herrera about pace-of-play violations at the plate, and the league fined him last month. Herrera said he's kept one foot in the batter's box at all times. With Herrera at the plate, there is an average time of 25.6 seconds between pitches, according to FanGraphs. Just three National League hitters have slower paces.
3 Dan Otero: The righthanded reliever, as a waiver claim, was Klentak's first acquisition as general manager. But he spent just 45 days on the Phillies roster last winter before being sold to Cleveland. He entered the weekend with a 1.60 ERA in 45 innings with 39 strikeouts and nine walks for the first-place Indians.