CLEARWATER, Fla. — Gabe Kapler got one of the rites of spring out of the way Sunday. He named his opening day starting pitcher. Not surprisingly, it is the Phillies’ best starter. Aaron Nola will take the mound March 29 in Atlanta.
“I’ll tell you, it’s Aaron Nola,” Kapler said after the right-hander’s spring debut in an 8-3 loss to the Yankees. “It’s going to be Aaron Nola, barring anything crazy happening. He’s our guy. He's the man. He's our opening day starter. He’s earned it. He’s unequivocally the right choice. He’s an absolute gamer, a grinder and a stud and we’re proud to have him.”
Nola, 24, will be the Phillies’ youngest opening day starter since Dennis Bennett in 1964. Nola departed before Kapler’s announcement. Earlier in the day, he said getting the opening day nod “would mean a lot.” He added, “But there’s a lot of games and I plan on pitching a lot of them.”
After making the announcement, Kapler was asked if he would stay with that plan if the Phillies landed a big-name starting pitcher. It’s no secret that the club would like to sign former NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta — if he’d be willing to take a short-term deal. There’s a feeling around baseball that the longer Arrieta remains unsigned, the better chance his road would lead to Philadelphia.
“Yes,” Kapler said in response to the question. “As of this moment, Aaron Nola is our opening day starter.”
Nola returned from an elbow injury in 2017 and struck out 9.88 batters per nine innings in 27 starts last season. His 3.54 ERA ranked 20th in the majors. He had 12 ultra-quality starts — seven innings or more, two or fewer earned runs. Only Clayton Kershaw (16) and Max Scherzer (14) had more.
“His performance lines up nicely with the Scherzers of the world, not far off (Zack) Grienke,” Kapler said. “He is a real stud, someone we can depend on.”
Nola worked two innings Sunday. He gave up four hits, but one was a ball that Maikel Franco lost in the sun. Had Franco made the play, Nola eventually would have gotten out of the first inning. Instead, he was charged with three runs. He did not walk a batter and struck out three.
“It was really impressive to see that horizontal curveball and the life on his fastball,” Kapler said. “His curveball has the most east-west break in baseball. You can see it make a sharp left turn out of his hand.
“The results are not representative of his work today. His work was outstanding.”
Nola said his goal this season was to make every start and pitch 200 innings. He believes the Phillies can contend.
“Everybody still thinks we’re in the rebuilding stage, but I don’t think anyone in here doesn't think we’re going to compete,” he said. “We’re definitely going to be better than last year.”
And if the Phillies can add someone like Arrieta?
“That’s not our decision,” Nola said. “That’s the big guys’ decision. It would definitely be good to get another veteran. It’s always good to have veterans because for us younger guys it’s good to learn from them. They’ve been in our shoes before.”