Long before Aaron Nola was one of baseball's best pitching prospects, he was "Austin Nola's little brother."
"That's how everybody knew me," said Aaron Nola, who will make his major-league debut with the Phillies on Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park.
The Nola brothers grew up in Baton Rouge, La., and played baseball at the city's powerhouse Catholic High School. Aaron Nola is three years younger than Austin. He said his older brother taught him how to handle both failure and success. The two spent last offseason together at their parents' home. Nola said it brought them even closer.
Their age gap allowed them to be teammates just once, when Aaron Nola was a freshman at Louisiana State and his brother was a senior. They had both been drafted the previous June by Toronto, but they decided to play together at the college minutes from their home.
"It was special," Aaron Nola said. "I didn't get to play with him in high school. It was really good and special for my parents. Because, when I was in high school, one would be at my game and one would be at Austin's game. This was the time that they could be together and watch us on the same field and travel with us. That was very special."
Miami drafted Austin Nola in the fifth round after his senior season. The 25-year-old infielder was promoted last month to triple-A New Orleans. The brothers talk a few times a week. Austin Nola said he makes sure to call whenever his brother is starting. He said Aaron's performance has been impressive. Aaron, 22, the Phillies best pitching prospect, went 10-4 with a 2.39 ERA this season in 18 starts between double-A Reading and triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Nola said his older brother helped guide him through high school and college. He taught him how to carry himself and how to handle success and failure. Now, they are helping each other navigate through professional baseball.
"We went through the same things. There's little things that you have to know to get through it and strive," Austin Nola said. "He definitely strived. Now I think I am Aaron Nola's big brother."
Whenever LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri sees Austin and Aaron Nola's parents, he acts as if he is mad at them. A.J. and Stacie Nola ask Mainieri what's wrong. He tells them they should have had more boys. He wishes he could have fielded a team of Nolas. Mainieri had a Nola on his team for six straight seasons. He said Aaron and Austin were the "poster children" of the Tigers program.
"Not only are they tremendous ballplayers, but they epitomize everything good about college athletics and being a student-athlete," Mainieri said. "They do so much community-service work. They work harder than anybody. They perform at a high level under the brightest lights and the biggest games. They're the easiest kids in the world to coach. All of their teammates love them. I'm making them sound like they're perfect, and they're not. But they're as close to perfect as perfect can be."
In their lone season together, Aaron and Austin Nola helped LSU reach the NCAA Super Regionals. Their lone win was a game that Aaron started. He spent the next two seasons as the team's ace. He was on the mound every Friday night as LSU's Alex Box Stadium overflowed with 12,000 people. Nola was 23-2 with a 1.52 ERA in his final two seasons.
He was named the national pitcher of the year after his junior season and became the first pitcher to twice be named the Southeastern Conference's pitcher of the year. The Phillies drafted him with the seventh pick in the 2014 draft. His major-league debut Tuesday will come just 416 days after his last college start.
"As he prepared to go into the minor leagues, there was nothing that he was going to see that would fluster him," Mainieri said. "He's pitched in front of bigger crowds in college than the minor leagues. He talked to more reporters. He dealt with the public and signed more autographs, and he's been a community servant more at LSU probably than his time in the minors."
A dream matchup
Aaron Nola first pitched against his brother when he was a freshman at Catholic High. Austin Nola's team was preparing for the state tournament, so the coach pulled Aaron from the freshman team to pitch an inning against the varsity squad. Nola forced his brother to ground out to second base.
The brothers met twice more in intrasquad games at LSU. They split the matchups.
Their next meeting could come in the majors. The brothers talk about it all the time. Aaron even tells Austin how he would attack him.
"There would be a lot of adrenaline pumping," Austin said. "It would be a no-win situation. But it would be a lot of fun."
The brothers are now just one step away from facing each other in the majors. A dream matchup is in reach.