Phillies

Aaron Nola has look of an organizational building block, strikes out 10 in beating baseball's best offense

Aaron Nola has look of an organizational building block, strikes out 10 in beating baseball's best offense

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The trade of reliever Pat Neshek to the Colorado Rockies was the headline grabber in the Phillies' world late Wednesday night (see story), but the most important occurrence of the evening happened on the little hump in the middle of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park.

Aaron Nola continued his mid-season surge with six shutout innings in a 9-0 win over the Houston Astros (see Instant Replay). The 24-year-old right-hander scattered four hits, walked one and struck out 10, a career high.

Over his last seven starts, Nola is 5-1 with a 1.49 ERA. He has struck out 60 batters in that span and walked just 14. Opposing batters have hit just .189.

Nola's recent success has come in the wake of an elbow injury that shut him down for the final two months of last season, some inconsistency early this season and a trip to the disabled list for an upper-back strain. Nola is pitching like the organizational building block that the Phillies projected him to be when they selected him in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2014 draft.

"I can't say enough about him, he's been outstanding," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're all really happy about the progress he's made. He's turned the corner, I think. I don’t have enough accolades for him."
 
Nola didn't beat just any team in his 16th start of the season.

The Astros have the second-best record in baseball at 67-34 and they lead the majors in just about every important offensive category, including runs, hits and homers. Sure, the Astros were without All-Stars Carlos Correa and George Springer — both American League MVP candidates — and standout Alex Bregman, but they still had a formidable lineup, led by hitting machine Jose Altuve, who ran his hitting streak to 18 games. He's hitting a cool .513 over that span.

"They're pretty good," Nola said. "I just had to stay with my plan that I've used the last few outings — get the leadoff hitter out and throw first-pitch strikes. I couldn't change anything just because they're in first place."

Nola used a three-pitch mix: a sinking fastball, curveball and his improved changeup. He finished off seven of his 10 strikeout victims with curveballs.

"I think location is important," he said. "You can have stuff but it might not get them as much as location. That's kind of what I was focused on. Making pitches in quality locations."

Nola's batterymate, Cameron Rupp, had a big night with a pair of two-run homers. The Phillies had nine extra-base hits and were 5 for 18 with runners in scoring position a night after going 0 for 10 in those situations.

"We got pitches to hit and we didn't miss them," Rupp said. "It was fun."

Rupp especially had fun catching Nola.

"Cy Young," he joked. "He's been outstanding the last month and a half. He's back to being the old Aaron that he was when he first came up. He's a guy that can lead a pitching staff. He knows how to pitch. He's got three pitches that he can put you away with. He's got a good fastball and his curveball has been great and now his changeup — he's learned how to use it and put guys away with it. When you do that, you're going to have a lot of success."

Yankees GM calls Phillies' Rob Thomson one of the best in business

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Yankees GM calls Phillies' Rob Thomson one of the best in business

CLEARWATER, Fla. – According to New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, “the Phillies got one of the best,” when they hired Rob Thomson as bench coach.

“It was tough to see him leave,” Cashman said. “He is a great coach, an exceptional baseball man. His knowledge of the game is off the charts.

“Gabe Kapler has someone at his side that he can trust to have everything lined up properly all the time and that will free up Gabe Kapler to focus on whatever he wants to focus on at the given time. Rob Thomson will keep the rudder steady every step of the way."

Thomson, 54, spent 28 years in the Yankees organization, most recently as Joe Girardi’s bench coach. He was one of five people (along with Eric Wedge, Hensley Muelens and Carlos Beltran) to interview to become Girardi’s successor during the offseason (see story.) Aaron Boone got the job.

Timing worked in the Phillies’ favor in hiring Thomson. There was a lag between when Thomson found out he would not be the Yankees’ manager and Boone’s hiring. The Phillies offered him their bench coach job and he took it.

“He would have been a candidate to return here, without question,” Cashman said. “It would have been the final call of Aaron Boone, but I would have recommended him highly to Aaron Boone. I gave (Phillies GM) Matt Klentak the highest recommendation.”

Thomson described himself as a good self-evaluator. He’s not sure he’d be cut out to manage every team, but he believed he’d have been a good fit for the Yankees job. He knew that organization, its operation and its players well.

“I understand that it’s part of the business,” Thomson said. “Brian and his staff, who are very smart people, had a certain person in mind and it wasn’t me. So you have to move on and refocus.”

Kapler did extensive research on Thomson and said he often heard that Thomson was “the best in the business at planning and running a spring training camp.”

Cashman concurred.

“Gabe Kapler has as good a right-hand man as you can find,” he said.

One plugged-in baseball observer described Thomson as similar to the late John Vukovich – a loyal-to-his-manager baseball taskmaster – only with a little less volume in his voice.

“He’s tough,” Cashman said. “He will be brutally honest. He’ll say what a player needs to hear, not necessarily what a player wants to hear. And he’ll always relate well to players because he always has their best interest at heart.

“The Phillies got one of the best.”

New bench coach Rob Thomson is Yankees’ loss, Phillies' gain

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New bench coach Rob Thomson is Yankees’ loss, Phillies' gain

CLEARWATER, Fla. – It will probably hit Rob Thomson sometime on Sunday. That’s when the New York Yankees visit Spectrum Field, the Phillies’ spring-training home.

Thomson spent 28 seasons in the Yankees’ famous pinstripes, serving in player-development, front-office and coaching roles.

Most recently, he was the bench coach for former Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Thomson was one of five people interviewed to replace Girardi after last season. Aaron Boone got the job, but Thomson wasn’t a free agent for long. The Phillies quickly scooped up the 54-year-old baseball lifer and installed him as new manager Gabe Kapler’s top lieutenant.

On Sunday, Thomson will look across the diamond and see his past.

But all he’s thinking about is the future.

“I feel like I’m part of the Phillies family already,” he said. “The people have been great. They’ve welcomed me right in.

“I’m here to support Gabe in any way I can. I’ve got his back all the time.”

Phillies management wanted a veteran coaching presence around the 42-year-old Kapler, whose only managing experience came a decade ago in the low minors. New pitching coach Rick Kranitz held that position with three other clubs over 10 seasons. New hitting coach John Mallee previously held that position with the Astros and Cubs.

Thomson worked on Joe Torre’s staff before working under Girardi. He lived through the Yankees’ growth as one of baseball’s analytic giants. He's just what the Phillies and Kapler were looking for.

“I ask everybody everything all the time,” Kapler said. “I contacted no fewer than 20 people about Rob and heard nothing even remotely negative. I weigh that more than a six-hour interview. You might nail the interview, but you can’t fake your career.”

Kapler’s most valuable appraisal came from Girardi, who said Thomson was an incredible teammate.

“In my opinion, that’s the best compliment anyone in baseball can give,” Kapler said.

Thomson is a former catcher. He played on the 1984 Canadian Olympic team and in the Tigers' farm system before joining the Yankees’ player development department.

While working on Torre’s staff, Thomson learned the value of trust.

“Joe Torre was really into relationships and gaining trust with a player and that taught me a lot,” Thomson said. “Before you can really help players, they have to be able to trust you.

“With Joe Girardi, he was a little more analytics-driven so that taught me a lot. We’d always looked at numbers but it taught me to really dive into some of the more critical numbers that are around today.

“In a lot of ways, Gabe reminds me of Joe (Girardi) because of his presence and openness to ideas. Those are great qualities for a leader to have.”

Thomson arrives at work pre-dawn in spring training to plan the day. He is known to arrive at noon for a regular season night game. With data study, scouting reports, video, one-on-one coaching and meetings, the preparation for a single game rivals what happens in the NFL – only it happens every day. When game time arrives, Thomson will be at Kapler’s side, making suggestions and offering ideas (see story). He said he takes nothing personal, so Kapler can wave him off any time.

“But I won’t," Kapler said with a laugh. “I need that.”