Can the Phillies' Best Pitcher Live Up to Epic Expectations?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he can bring the Phillies back.
By Matt Foley
Hip-hop blares in the Phillies’ clubhouse after the latest win in a recent six-game streak. Aaron Nola sits at his locker, nonplussed, gunning for a return from the disabled list. April was good to Philadelphia, but a brutal start to May threatens to derail yet another season in Philadelpha. If the Phillies have any chance of breaking free from four straight losing seasons, they need their curly-headed ace to come back strong.
No team from the City of Brotherly Love has been as brilliant or abhorrent as the recent Philadelphia Phillies. From 2007–2011, the team won five straight division titles, including a 2008 World Series victory, before dismantling an aging roster. In the years since, unwatchable lineups have stomped across the diamond. In 2014, Philadelphia drafted Nola, an All-American hurler from collegiate powerhouse Louisiana State University, to anchor the organizational rebuild. Philly’s excellence in the last decade relied on All-Star pitchers like Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, and management knows the team’s best shot depends on Nola’s return to form. He has impressed through parts of two major league seasons, but a serious elbow injury last summer, and a strained back now, has the organization wondering if their surefire prospect will ever pay off.
“LSU was like a smaller version of the big leagues,” Nola tells OZY, when asked about his quick transition from college star to big-league starter. “Baton Rouge is a lot like Philadelphia — both have passionate fans.”
Nola, 23, was born to be an LSU Tiger. Growing up in Baton Rouge, he and his older brother Austin seized every opportunity to sneak onto the field at Alex Box Stadium, usually after watching the Tigers dismantle an SEC foe. Austin became an All-State performer at Catholic High School and an All-American shortstop at LSU. Following his junior season, Miami drafted Austin in the fifth round, but when Aaron committed to the Tigers, Austin stuck around to play one season with his little brother. “We do everything together,” Aaron tells OZY. “But I’d never had the chance to play with him.”
Austin had set the bar high at LSU, but Aaron shattered those expectations. After being named Louisiana’s Mr. Baseball at Catholic, he played three seasons in purple and gold. “The most complete college pitcher” that LSU’s Paul Mainieri says he’s ever coached, Nola’s effortless mechanics and pinpoint command translated to a devastating arsenal of pitches that befuddled overmatched amateurs. He became a two-time All-American and National Pitcher of the Year before the Phillies picked him seventh overall. On July 21, 2015, after posting a sub-3.00 ERA at every level of the minors, Nola made his major league debut, allowing one run over six innings while striking out six Tampa Bay Rays. He finished the season 6–2 with a 3.59 ERA. The Phillies ace had arrived.
Nola needs to stay healthy and meet expectations if he is to be the long-term face of Philly’s franchise.
In the wake of a breakout 2015, Nola started hot last season. He was 5-4 with a pristine 2.65 ERA going into June, meaning that through 25 MLB starts, he had a 3.34 ERA with 153 strikeouts and only 34 walks in 145.2 innings. Still, disaster loomed. Nola went 1-5 with a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts. Team doctors reported “low-grade” sprains and strained ligaments and tendons in his right elbow, and his offseason came early after being shut down on July 28.
“I’ve had tweaks and pain before; that’s just the nature of a pitcher,” Nola tells OZY. “But, yeah, that was my first serious injury. Working with Austin really helped me out.”
The Nolas are offseason roommates in Baton Rouge, using the LSU facilities to train before heading out to hunt and fish. This past winter, though, the brothers drew even closer. After five minor league seasons as an infielder, the Marlins moved Austin behind the dish. While Austin helped Aaron strengthen his elbow with daily throwing sessions, Aaron helped him master one of the most complex positions in sports. “He’s helped me a lot to learn how to communicate with the pitchers,” Austin told the Miami Herald. Says Aaron: “I tried to teach him what pitchers like and don’t like. He picked it up quick. With more reps, he’s going to be great.”
Nola claims his offseason rehab program paid dividends, leaving him pain-free and with a confirmed boost in velocity. The right-hander has always thrown like a pitcher well beyond his years — adding a mid-90s fastball makes Nola an All-Star contender. But after missing two starts because of a strained back, Nola is still working to return from consecutive 10-day stays on the disabled list. He likely could have pitched through the pain, but Philadelphia GM Matt Klentak chose to safeguard his prized piece. “After receiving treatment the last few days, the symptoms improved,” Klentak said via press release on April 24. “But he still felt some tightness. Our hope is Aaron will only miss one or two starts.” A recent MRI came back clean, and Nola is believed to be back by mid-May.
Through three starts this season, Nola is 2–1 with a 4.50 ERA. He looks good physically, but his numbers could improve. With young pitching prospect Nick Pivetta, whom the Phillies recently promoted to fill his role, gunning for a rotation spot, Nola needs to stay healthy and meet expectations if he is to be the long-term face of Philly’s franchise. Lifelong fan Schuyler Rooke believes, barring injury, Nola is still the answer. “He’s performed at every level,” says Rooke. “Health is an issue, but he’s the real deal.”
For some, the pitching mound can be a labyrinth of mental anguish, with traps for overthinking and perfectionism. Nola’s boosters point to his maturity as a reason to believe his best years are ahead. More personal maturation is on the horizon this offseason, with Austin moving out of the siblings’ apartment to live with his fiancée.
“I’m on my own now,” Aaron joked, cognizant perhaps that a dose of independence could secure his fate on baseball’s lonely island. “I’ve been trying to recover as quick as I can. I’m focused on sticking to my routine, and sticking to it strictly.”