There were less than 2,000 people in the seats when the Phillies played their home Grapefruit League opener against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday, but that didn't matter to Aaron Nola.
The exact attendance was 1,886 — hey, that's the year Ty Cobb was born — and, for Nola, that represented a huge step in the right direction after not pitching in front of fans last season. At least living, breathing fans.
"Awesome," the Phillies right-hander said. "It was great. It felt like my second spring training debut.
"Playing with no fans in the stands last year really made us appreciate them. You don't realize it until you don't have what you don't have.
"The cardboard cutouts and the (piped-in) crowd noise helped last year. But you can't replace human beings in the stands. So, it was refreshing to hear them again today. Even if it wasn't half-full, it was still nice to have people here."
Nola is expected to make his fourth straight opening day start on April 1 against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Last week, city health officials said it was likely that the Phils would be permitted to have some fans in the ballpark in April. On Monday, the state said it would permit up to 20 percent capacity for outdoor events. That's about 8,500 at CBP.
"To have fans back in the stands at Citizens Bank Park will be awesome," Nola said. "It kind of gets you more in the zone. You hear that noise from the crowd. Most of us play off that, we feed off the fans and that energy."
A lot of things are different in the COVID world. The fans who spread out in the seats at BayCare Ballpark on Monday saw the Phils and Orioles play to a 4-4 tie. The game was halted after seven innings. Shortened Grapefruit League games are permitted as part of COVID protocols in place this spring.
The Phils lost their Grapefruit League opener Sunday against Detroit in Lakeland.
A veteran pitcher like Nola typically does not put much stock in results from his first spring training start. It's a time to run the engines a little, get some feel back and work on commanding the fastball. Nola actually went a little beyond that, however. He threw all of his pitches, including his curveball. He hung one of them and DJ Stewart hit it for a two-run homer in the first inning. In two innings of work, Nola ended up allowing four hits and two runs. He walked none and struck out one. He threw a first-pitch strike to six of the nine hitters he faced.
"Usually, I don't go into the first game throwing everything, I kind of set on one pitch," Nola said. "But I kind of want to keep all my pitches sharp, work on my repertoire, fine-tune it and fine-tune my delivery. The first day, sometimes your delivery is off, but it felt good today. That's the main focus right now, getting my arm in sync with my body."
Zack Wheeler will make his first spring start Tuesday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin. Zach Eflin will make his first start Wednesday against Detroit in Lakeland. Nola, Wheeler and Eflin project to be the Phillies' top 3 starters.