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Phillies' Aaron Nola makes impressive big-league debut

The young righthander loses a 1-0 decision to Tampa Bay, but shows the poise and efficiency of a seasoned pro.

Aaron Nola. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)
Aaron Nola. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)Read more

FORTY-FIVE minutes before game time, the few fans who were in their seats and paying attention in rightfield broke out in a round of applause. A lone figure was jogging across the outfield grass toward the 401 sign in dead centerfield. The sound of 60 or so hands clapping mixed with the pregame elevator music that played over the sound system. The grounds crew watered the infield. Aaron Nola paused in front of the 401 sign, then jogged back. The smattering of fans clapped again.

Hey, I wish I had something more dramatic for you, a slow clap or a rhythmic chant or an electric sense of anticipation rippling through a sold-out crowd as fathers lift sons upon shoulders to catch their first glimpse of the kid. But maybe the anonymity is fitting, because the Phillies' best pitching prospect since Cole Hamels is that kind of pitcher: understated, efficient, ready to pounce on any hitter who scoffs that he isn't a fire-breather named Thor.

The most interesting at-bat of Nola's debut, and perhaps the one that sums him up best, came in his first inning, with a runner on second and the Rays' best - only? - hitter at the plate. After losing his grip on a first-pitch curveball, Nola fed Evan Longoria two straight fastballs that the All-Star third baseman could not resist. Both checked in at 93, both featured an illusory sort of rising movement, and both evaded the plane of two big swings. Nola admitted later that he actually missed his spot with both pitches, which were supposed to be outside, but arrived up in the zone. That's actually a good sign. While Nola isn't regarded as having an overpowering fastball, it had more than enough life last night to provide him with some margin for error.

Ninety-three with movement up in the zone?

"Those are tough pitches to hit," Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

So is Nola's curveball, which twisted Longoria into an off-balance swing for strike three, prompting him to turn around and cast a frustrated look at the catcher's mitt.

"Bad swings from guys like Longoria - that's a very, very good hitter," catcher Cameron Rupp said afterwards.

For six innings, that's how it went, the only exception a fluky home run off the bat of opposing pitcher Nate Karns, who was 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in his career at the plate, but who somehow managed to run into a fastball down in the zone for a home run on the first pitch of the third inning. Otherwise, everything was as advertised: his command, his composure, his consistency.

"For a young pitcher, he looked incredibly polished," Cash said.

The most remarkable thing about Nola's performance was how repeatable it seemed. Fastball down in the zone for strike one, fastball down in the zone for strike two, then move it around and make them miss it. It is a testament to his ability if you caught yourself wondering, "Why doesn't everybody just pitch like this?" That's how easy it seems. And, hey, when you have confidence in your fastball and you locate it with the consistency of a pitching machine, it really is easy.

"My favorite guy to watch in the minors," a visiting scout said before the game.

Nola's only hint of trouble came with two outs in his final inning, when he walked Logan Forsythe on five pitches and then fell behind Kevin Kiermaier 2-0. The trouble, if you want to call it that, ended on his next pitch, a line out to right that ended his big-league debut with the following line:

6 IP 5 H 1 R 1 ER 1 BB 6 SO

He probably could have pitched a seventh inning, but, really, what was there to gain? His 88 pitches were more than enough to inject an increasingly fatalistic fan base with some much-needed mojo. Of all the must-see games on the Phillies' schedule, this was unquestionably the first. Count every five or six days from here through the end of the season and you'll find the rest.

"It was packed right around the bullpen before the game," Rupp said of Nola's warmup session. "As soon as he threw his last pitch, they went nuts."

The law of averages suggests that the Phillies will score a run for him at some point during that stretch, but it really doesn't matter, because the fun from here on out lies not in wins and losses. Instead, it lies in watching a bona fide big-league starter in his first go-around against big-league hitters and then imagining what it will look like when he has a legitimate team around him.