CLEARWATER, Fla. - Cameron Rupp pulled a chair over to Aaron Nola's locker two hours before Nola, the Phillies' top pitching prospect, made his debut against major-league hitters.
Rupp, the starting catcher for Friday's rain-shortened 10-0 loss to the New York Yankees, asked Nola which pitches he threw. He told Nola to be himself. Go for the throat, the catcher said.
Rupp said he did not tell the pitcher that Friday's Yankees lineup was not a spring-training special. The starting nine included most of the team's opening-day regulars.
Nola was unfazed. He pitched three scoreless innings and struck out four batters. He struck out Alex Rodriguez on an outside change-up. Rodriguez said he "almost choked on" it. Carlos Beltran also fanned at a change-up. It was quite the first impression for the pitcher billed by Cole Hamels as "the future."
"I grew up watching that guy," Nola said of Rodriguez. "Unbelievable player. I kind of settled in and just kind of pitched to my strengths against him. It's the same game all around, and I tried to do my best."
Nola told Rupp in the clubhouse that his top pitch is a fastball. The righthander throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball. The catcher used the pitch to help Nola get accustomed. Nola threw a fastball for 12 of his first 15 pitches. His fastball topped off twice at 94 m.p.h. Nola, 21, started mixing in his change-up and curveball in his second inning of work.
"He's easy to work with," Rupp said. "He wasn't afraid to shake me off. When he was confident with a pitch, he threw it with conviction and made pitches."
Nola was slated to start the game as a cameo before likely starting the season at double-A Reading. The Phillies announced 30 minutes before the game that Nola was being replaced by Jonathan Papelbon. The Phillies wanted to ensure that Papelbon pitched before an approaching thunderstorm entered the area.
Papelbon threw a scoreless inning and Nola entered from the bullpen. It was the first time he had pitched in relief since early in his collegiate career.
"It was different running out there from the bullpen to the mound. You can't do that in the first inning," Nola said. "There was some nerves and some butterflies, but it was a cool experience for me."
He found himself in quick trouble. Two of the first three batters reached base. The Yankees had runners on second and third with one out. Chris Young flew out to right field and Jeff Francoeur threw home to nab Rodriguez, who was trying to tag up from third. Nola wiped his mouth with his jersey and ambled off the field. Trouble was averted.
"I like everything about him," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He talks the game right, he pitched well today. And he has good stuff, so I think that was a good test for him getting his feet wet."
Nola caught Chase Headley looking at a change-up in the third inning for his first strikeout. Beltran, the next batter, went down swinging. In the fourth, he struck out Rodriguez and Young. Nola walked from the mound and slapped hands with Mike Schmidt before entering the dugout.
He sat on the bench for two innings before heading back to the Phillies clubhouse. The pitcher showered, changed, and returned to the team's minor-league complex. Nola's day as a major-leaguer was finished. The future could be near.