Aaron Nola passes the first of many tests 7 months after elbow injury

Aaron Nola passes the first of many tests 7 months after elbow injury

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.

MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS

USA Today Images

MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS


HOUSTON — Justin Verlander remained perfect with Houston, pitching seven shutout innings when the team needed him most, and Jose Altuve homered and drove in three runs as the Astros extended the AL Championship Series to a decisive Game 7 with a 7-1 win over the New York Yankees on Friday night.

Acquired in an Aug. 31 trade, Verlander has won all nine outings with the Astros. And with his new club facing elimination in Game 6 against the Yankees, he delivered again.

After striking out 13 in a complete-game victory in Game 2, Verlander threw another gem. The right-hander scattered five hits and struck out eight to improve to 9-0 with 67 strikeouts since being traded from Detroit. George Springer helped him out of a jam in the seventh, leaping to make a catch at the center-field wall and rob Todd Frazier of extra bases with two on and Houston up 3-0.

Game 7 is Saturday night in Houston, with the winner advancing to the World Series against the NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

Dusty Baker fired by Nationals after 2 NL East titles


Dusty Baker fired by Nationals after 2 NL East titles

WASHINGTON -- Dusty Baker's time as the manager of the Washington Nationals is over after two seasons, two NL East titles and zero playoff series victories.

The Nationals announced Friday that they would not be bringing Baker back. His two-year deal with the club is expiring.

The contracts for the members of Baker's coaching staff also are finished. The team said it will work with its new manager to fill those positions.

The moves come the week after Washington was eliminated from its NL Division Series against the Chicago Cubs with a 9-8 loss at home in Game 5. The Nationals also were bounced from the postseason in the NLDS round in 2016 -- also with a Game 5 loss at home by one run, that time against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

This outcome, essentially, is what Baker was worried about as far back as spring training in February, when he made clear his desire for a new contract, knowing his was up after 2017.

Before the series against the Cubs began, Baker was asked about his possible future in Washington.

"I've given some thought to some things, but we were told that we were waiting until after the season to make a determination," he said at the time. "There's a good chance I'll be back."

He expected negotiations to pick up after the season ended (see full story).

Turner, Taylor repay Dodgers' patience by sharing NLCS MVP
CHICAGO -- Justin Turner and Chris Taylor shared MVP honors in the NL Championship Series, repaying a Dodgers organization willing to roll the dice on players whose big league careers were stalled.

In Turner's case, it was then-bench coach Tim Wallach who rediscovered him playing in a Cal State-Fullerton alumni baseball game four years ago, after his career appeared all but over.

In Taylor's case, it was Los Angeles' willingness to gamble that an offseason of grueling workouts would enable the young utilityman to rebuild his swing in a matter of months.

The co-MVPs turned up in the interview room together after the Dodgers eliminated the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs 11-1 in Game 5. They were champagne-soaked with hats turned backward, a pair of goggles still perched on Turner's head. Fittingly, they doused each other with praise.

"He's a dynamic player and a table setter," said Turner, who hit .333 for the series, with two home runs and seven RBIs. "When he goes, we usually go as a team."

"I talk to him as much as I can. He's one of the reasons I decided to make the changes I did," said Taylor, who finished at .316 with two homers and three RBIs. Both men also walked five times, as many as the entire Cubs roster (see full story).

Rare Jackie Robinson rookie jersey up for auction
NEW YORK -- A rare jersey from Jackie Robinson's historic rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers 70 years ago could be available for someone with a few spare millions.

The jersey, part of a Heroes of Sports offering by Heritage Auctions, has been certified by Mears, one of the top memorabilia authentication companies. It is accompanied by a letter from Robinson's widow, Rachel, saying it is the one brought home by the Hall of Famer at the end of the 1947 season, when he became the first black player in the majors and earned Rookie of the Year honors.

"This is the only one known from the `47 season, the only one that survived," Chris Ivy, Heritage's director of sports auctions, told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "It stayed in his closet for five decades plus until it was eventually sold to a private collector in the early 2000s."

The online auction opened Friday and closes at 11 p.m. on Nov. 19. The entire collection is from one owner and can be viewed on Heritage's website. Other items available for bidding include Babe Ruth's pants from the Hall of Fame induction in 1939, Keith Hernandez's 1978 Gold Glove award, a Wilt Chamberlain jersey from 1966, Bill Vukovich's Indianapolis 500 trophy from 1953 and Muhammad Ali's shoes from his fight against Ken Norton in 1973.

Ivy said the Robinson jersey has been valued at more than $3 million. He wouldn't be surprised to see it exceed that.

"It's tough to estimate a piece like this -- it's a one of a kind," he said. "As far as collectibles a rookie (jersey) is always sought after, something that's significant."