ATLANTA — Even in the gloom of a 96-loss season, there were positives for the Phillies last year.

The club brought up a handful of young players from the minors and played .500 ball over the final 76 games.

Several relievers, most notably Hector Neris, Adam Morgan and Luis Garcia, had terrific second halves.

Rhys Hoskins arrived — and produced.

But there was no greater success story for the 2017 Phillies than Aaron Nola.

A year ago at this time, club officials were privately holding their breath that the elbow injury that cost Nola the final two months of the 2016 season was behind him.

Nola showed that it was by making 27 starts and posting a 3.54 ERA, 20th best in the majors. He authored 12 ultra-quality starts — seven innings or more, two or fewer earned runs. Only Clayton Kershaw (16) and Max Scherzer (14) had more. He struck out 9.88 batters per nine innings and at one point in the middle of the season put together 10 straight starts in which he allowed no more than two runs while pitching at least six innings each time.

Jake Arrieta or not, Aaron Nola deserves to be the Phillies’ opening day starter — and that’s just what he is. He gets the ball when the team opens the 2018 season against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park on Thursday (4:10 p.m./NBCSP).

Nola’s successful 2017 season was actually rooted in his difficult 2016 season. After going down in late July that year, Nola committed himself to getting healthy and stronger.

You can see the fruits of his work when he walks around the clubhouse in a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt. His back muscles are visible. He has lats. His calf muscles are pronounced and strong. Last winter, he worked hard to come back from injury. This winter, he worked hard to avoid injury and put himself in position to take a big leap forward in his career. Two months before his 25th birthday, he is poised to do that.


“This offseason, I tried to get stronger in the areas that I use to pitch,” Nola said. “The lats, the triceps, my shoulder. I tried to build my back up as much as I could. My legs. I worked on my calves. After the injury, I got a lot smarter in my workouts.

“In some ways, the injury was a blessing in disguise, I think. Nobody wants to get hurt to learn something but sometimes that’s what it takes.”

Cole Hamels said similar things early in his career.

Nola is a rock-solid 205 pounds now, strong in all the areas a pitcher wants to be.

“After the injury, I learned how to use my legs more and during rehab, I tried to make them stronger,” he said. “That’s taken stress off my elbow. I thought I was using my legs the right way, but I wasn’t. I developed better mechanics in my legs while I was rehabbing. That kept me healthy last year.”

And it should keep Nola healthy this year.

A year ago at this time, he was a concern.

Now, he’s the Phillies' opening day starter and the rotation rock that the team hoped it was getting when it selected him seventh overall in the 2014 draft.