WITH THE possible exception of an uber-talent, No. 1 overall pick such as Stephen Strasburg, no 22-year-old kid arrives in the big leagues and is immediately crowned a stopper, let alone an ace.
Such fancy words are set aside for the pitchers who have put in the time on a big-league mound, who have been selected to an All-Star Game, finished high on a Cy Young Award ballot, or shined in postseason play.
So, as manager Pete Mackanin has said more than once in the last two weeks, let's not get ahead of ourselves and crown Aaron Nola as anything more than what he's been in his first seven weeks in the big leagues: a very consistent, polished, young pitcher with a lot of promise and a knack for righting his team, too.
In his 10th major league start, Nola shut out the Atlanta Braves for seven innings in helping the Phillies snap a five-game skid in a 5-0 victory at Citizens Bank Park last night.
The start came six nights after the worst outing of his young career, when he allowed six runs in four innings at Citi Field (and when sloppy defense created many of those runs).
"Nola was outstanding," Mackanin said. "I was asked earlier how he'd rebound - he stepped up to the plate and really hit it out of the park."
Nola allowed six hits and recorded a career-high seven strikeouts, while walking only one batter. Fellow rookie Odubel Herrera slugged a three-run home run in the eighth to give the Phils pitching some late-inning cushion.
Nola, meanwhile, managed to play the role of stopper for the fourth time in seven starts within the last month.
On Aug. 7, in his fourth career start, Nola pitched the Phillies to a one-run win at San Diego following back-to-back losses in Los Angeles. The Phillies went on to sweep the Padres.
Five days later, Nola took the mound at Chase Field following two blowout losses to the Diamondbacks, when the Phils were outscored, 26-4. He was sturdy enough to give his team five innings as they avoided a sweep.
On Aug. 28, it was San Diego again, but this time at Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies had just been victimized by the Mets in New York's first four-game sweep in Philadelphia in 13 years. Nola allowed one run on two hits in seven innings, snapping a four-game losing streak.
Nola was at it again last night, when he struck out each of the first two Braves batters to begin another efficient, effective effort.
"I try to take the same approach each time I step out on the mound," Nola said of his habit of stopping skids. "And that approach is to go out and give everything I have, to compete until the last pitch I throw and go as deep as I can in the game to give the team the best chance to win."
The only hits Nola allowed in his seven innings were singles. The only times he ran into any real trouble, he turned to his knee-bending curveball for rally-crushing strikeouts (Nick Markakis in the third inning, Nick Swisher in the sixth).
"When I need to go to it, I felt really confident in it," Nola said.
His last start notwithstanding, Nola has appeared to get stronger with each start, too. He has pitched at least seven innings in three of his last four starts, while also striking out 23 and walking only five in that span.
"His ability to locate the fastballs down in the zone on both sides of the plate is his strong suit," Mackanin said. "To mix in his secondary pitches when he wants to, it's a real good sign for the future. He's a special guy."
Nola is obviously thought of highly enough within the organization that his 2015 season at least has a chance to end before the Phillies schedule wraps up on Oct. 4. He is only 16 months removed from pitching in college and entered uncharted territory last month when he began pitching in a season that expanded into September for the first time in his career. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said earlier this summer that the team would likely hold the rookie righthander to 180- to 190-inning threshold this season; Nola is at 170 innings.
"I feel good," Nola said. "Yeah, it's obviously been my longest year so far, but I really feel good, my body and arm feel good."
The Phillies are moving to a six-man rotation tonight, with David Buchanan returning to the starting staff, in an effort to ease the workload this month on the four rookie pitchers, including Nola.
"When they tell me he's done, he's done," Mackanin said. "I'm not going to conserve innings on him and allow him to pitch five or six if he can go into the seventh or eighth on a good pitch count, just to hold back his count. If he throws two nine-inning shutouts his next two times out, and that's his inning total, then that's what's going to happen."
That might be a lot to ask of a kid who's less than two months into his big-league career. But with how that kid has pitched in the last month, it's not unthinkable either.
"He knows he's got a job to do," Mackanin said, "and he's got a lot of confidence."