THE FIRST TIME Aaron Nola faced a major league hitter, Cameron Rupp was behind the plate. This was last March, at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., in the second inning of a Grapefruit League game against the Yankees.

"He's the same pitcher I caught that day in spring training as he is right now," Rupp said, his bearded face breaking into a grin as his eyes drifted off into a flashback.

Right now happened to be Monday evening, an hour or so after the Phillies sent a 22-year-old righthander to the mound to start the first home game of a season that they have marketed as the first step into a new generation. The kid did his part, striking out nine, walking none, allowing four runs in seven innings of work in a 4-3 loss to the Padres. As with each of Nola's previous 14 big-league starts, Rupp was behind the plate to catch him.

It was an opener rich in symbolism, right down to the cool drizzle that burned off with the morning into a spectacular springtime afternoon. After it was over, a crowd of reporters gathered around Ryan Howard, who graciously accepted manager Pete Mackanin's decision to pinch-hit for him with the bases loaded as part of the game. In previous seasons, the crowd would have shuffled across the room to get Carlos Ruiz's thoughts on the pitching performance, but Mackanin has made it clear he will not sacrifice the organization's current mission in the name of sentiment, and he stuck to that philosophy when he put Rupp's name in the lineup to catch Nola.

It's a delicate situation, no doubt, the dichotomy evident in the bat Rupp carried as he walked out of the clubhouse in his street clothes: a Ryan Howard model, signed by the slugger with a paint pen fetched from a cabinet in the center of the room. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, Rupp was in college at the University of Texas. Nola was 15 years old. On Monday afternoon, the transition to the future continued.

"He's made some strides with his pitches," Rupp said of Nola, "but if you go and watch him pitch in that game (against the Yankees) vs. the game today, it's the same emotion."

That emotion was more like a lack of emotion, which is why Rupp smiled as he spoke. Someone mentioned Cliff Lee to Nola on Monday, and he acknowledged watching the former Phillies lefty while growing up and taking note of the tempo and aggressiveness he displayed on the mound. But the look in Nola's eyes is more reminiscent of Roy Halladay, in that it lacks a periphery. The strike zone is all that he sees. Halladay needed a demotion to the minors to find it. Nola seemingly was drafted with it.

"Nothing fazes him," Rupp said.

Monday afternoon offered plenty of opportunity for him to lose it. The Phillies set up their rotation so the righty would be on the mound for their home opener. It was easy to forget he had never been through one of these: the sold-out stadium (in six home starts last season, he never pitched in front of a crowd that broke 30,000), the home team descending from the centerfield seats (Nola opened last season in Reading), the optimistic energy flowing through the ballpark (the Phillies were 29 games under .500 when he arrived last July). Yet for seven innings, he pitched as if Rupp was the only one watching. His only obvious mistake was a 2-2 curveball that Wil Myers dispatched into the leftfield seats in the fourth inning for a solo home run. Jon Jay knocked an RBI double in the third, but the Padres' other two runs came on a groundout and a safety squeeze. In two starts this season, Nola has pitched 14 innings, striking out 17 and walking none.

The performance underscored the importance of distinguishing means from ends as the Phillies continue to rebuild for the future. While they fell to 2-5, they generated more than enough energy to keep the 45,000-plus entertained for nine innings. Odubel Herrera chased down a potential double in the left-center alley. Cesar Hernandez legged out a leadoff triple. Maikel Franco made a diving stop at third (although the out was overturned after replay revealed Darin Ruf's toe an inch off the bag). The Phillies were in it to the end, which was rarely the case last season, including the opener, an 8-0 loss to the Red Sox. In 40 1/3 innings, Phillies starters have allowed 15 earned runs, with 43 strikeouts and only eight walks.

"We're in the ballgame, and we've got a chance to win every game this year," Rupp said. "When you're down, 5-0, in the second inning, it's tough to come back, no matter who's in your lineup. This year, it's a lot different."

A good kind of different, no doubt.

@ByDavidMurphy

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