DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The top starting pitchers in the major leagues throw over 3,000 pitches in a season, so it would be silly to get overly excited about the 30 that Aaron Nola threw in a Grapefruit League game on Thursday afternoon.
But make no mistake: This was a positive development.
The moment that manager Pete Mackanin, pitching coach Bob McClure, the front office and Nola himself had waited for all winter came and went without a hitch as Nola made a smooth spring debut against the Toronto Blue Jays (see game breakdown).
Pitching in a competitive situation for the first time since he was shut down with an elbow injury on July 28, Nola worked two innings and did not allow a run. He gave up a hard-hit single and struck out a batter while getting four groundball outs.
The result that mattered most, however, was the 23-year-old right-hander's health. He emerged from the first of many tests this spring and beyond with a smile that spoke volumes.
"It felt good, really good," Nola said. "The ball feels like it's coming out (of his hand) pretty good right now.
"It's a relief."
The radar gun offered an indication of how good Nola felt. He hit 94 mph several times, well above his average fastball velocity of 90.3 mph last season.
"I think that just comes from my body having rest and doing what I needed to do strength-wise and conditioning-wise," Nola said. "I'm just trying to maintain that and get stronger before the season starts."
Nola threw 16 pitches in the first inning and 14 in the second. The only hit that he gave up was a bullet off the left-field wall by Jose Bautista on a 3-1 fastball in the first inning.
Even filled with adrenaline and throwing harder than usual after seven months of rest and rehab, Nola would have a tough time getting a 3-1 fastball by Bautista, one of the game's most feared hitters the last decade.
"I guess I was amped up a little bit just because I hadn't been out there in a while," Nola said. "It felt all of seven months. I didn't really know how long it was until I counted. It felt like forever. So it's definitely good to get back out there again.
"Sometimes we take it for granted. I've never been hurt or on the disabled list before. It kind of brought me back to don't take it for granted because it really sucks to be taken away when you can't even throw. So I just tried to embrace everything during rehab and right now I'm not taking anything for granted.
"It's a new year and I'm just going to focus on maintaining my body and keeping it healthy."
There will be more tests for Nola and his elbow as the spring unfolds and his workload intensifies. And, lest we forget, Mackanin has often made the point that he wants to see how the pitcher holds up over the long haul of a big-league season before he pronounces Nola to be out of the woods.
It's a long journey. But the first few steps were positive.