Add Aaron Nola's name to the list of Phillies' concerns

Add Aaron Nola's name to the list of Phillies' concerns

What’s wrong with Aaron Nola?

Coming into the season, he was the least of the Phillies’ worries, the one pitcher in the starting rotation without even a hint of a question mark next to his name.

Now, after four starts that have ranged from lackluster to poor, he heads the list of Phillies’ concerns.

Nola was tagged for seven hits, three walks and five runs in just four innings in the Phillies’ 7-6 loss to the New York Mets in 11 innings on Monday night (see observations). The Mets, 46-22 at Citizens Bank Park since the start of 2012, scored the go-ahead run on a fielding error by first baseman Rhys Hoskins with two outs in the top of the 11th. It was the second time in the young season that he’d made a late error that led to a loss.

“I have to make that play,” Hoskins said. “I need to get in a better position to field that ball cleanly and I didn’t.”

The Phillies had chances to win the game but they left the bases loaded in the eighth when Bryce Harper followed a four-pitch walk by popping up on the first pitch, and in the 10th when Jean Segura struck out on a pitch off the plate with a runner on third.

Even if the Phillies had managed to pull off the win, the story would have been Nola. He’s that important to this club. And right now he’s not himself.

Nola finished third in the National League Cy Young voting last season. He ranked fourth in the majors with a 2.37 ERA. Now, four starts into the new season, he has the highest ERA among qualifying big-league starters at 7.45. He has given up 21 hits and 11 walks in 19 1/3 innings. Last year, he was among the best in baseball at getting ahead of hitters; he threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time, which ranked second in the majors. So far this season, he’s thrown a first-pitch strike just 47 percent of the time.

OK, here's the most important question: Does Nola, who pitched a career-high 212 1/3 innings last season, have a health issue?

“No health concerns,” manager Gabe Kapler said.

“My body feels fine,” Nola said. “My arm feels good. I'm healthy. That's the main thing for me. I feel like if I'm healthy, I can make strides.”

Even back in his days at LSU, Nola was a guy who could hit a gnat’s backside from 60 feet, six inches. That pinpoint command of the baseball is missing right now.

“I'm not making quality pitches when I'm in the zone,” Nola said. “It's resulting in balls out of the park, balls in for extra-base hits and scoring runs.”

Nola’s fastball velocity is down a tick from its average of 92.7 mph last season but Kapler said that was not a concern.

“I'm concerned about his command,” Kapler said. “His command is his calling card. He's just not throwing the ball where he wants to throw it right now. It's hurting him.

“He's got movement, deception, life — those things are still there. He just needs to put the ball where he wants to throw it.

“I'm concerned that Aaron is not getting where he wants to go. If he was sitting right here, I'd say the same thing to him. The flip side of that is the obvious, which is that he has a long track record of success. He’s not the only good starting pitcher that has had some early-season struggles, and we are going to do everything in our power to help him get back on track. He deserves as much confidence as anybody does. It doesn't mean that it feels good to watch him struggle by any stretch. It's also very true that this is an excellent major-league pitcher that deserves the benefit of the doubt here.”

Kapler was asked what he and the coaching staff would do to get Nola right?

“Everything,” he said. “All the things that we normally do. Watch video with him, analyze the movement on his fastball and his curveball and his changeup, help ensure that he's in peak physical condition. There are no tricks. There's no switch that you can turn on. Just give him all the support in the world, ask him to be the best he can be.”

Nola admitted that his struggles are a little baffling.

“Yeah,” he said. “It's been a tough go so far. I'm not going to hang my head about it because there's a lot of baseball left. I'll still go out there and compete.”

Nola’s next start is slated for Saturday night in Denver and that’s not exactly an ideal place for a struggling pitcher to get right.

Stay tuned.

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Larry Bowa recalls two special seasons with (almost unanimous) Hall of Famer Derek Jeter

Larry Bowa recalls two special seasons with (almost unanimous) Hall of Famer Derek Jeter

Larry Bowa asked a question Tuesday afternoon.

“You think he’ll be unanimous?”

Derek Jeter was a 14-time All-Star and a five-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees. He won a Rookie of the Year award, was a World Series MVP and finished in the top 10 in American League MVP voting eight times. He won five Gold Gloves at shortstop and finished his career with 3,465 hits. Only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker had more.

We’re talking rare air here, folks.

We’re talking icon.

So, six hours before the official Hall of Fame announcement was to come down early Tuesday night, the question that Bowa posed wasn’t whether Jeter would make it through the doors of Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility – that was a slam-dunk, take-it-to-the-bank, lead-pipe cinch – it was would he be just the second player ever to be elected unanimously.

“He should be,” Bowa said.

The answer to Bowa’s question came soon enough.

No, Jeter did not make it into the Hall unanimously, as his great Yankee teammate Mariano Rivera did the year before. But he still received historic support as he sailed into Hardball Heaven on his first try.

Jeter appeared on 396 of the 397 ballots cast by voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Voters are encouraged but not required to make their ballots public. The identity of the one writer who did not vote for Jeter was not immediately known. That person will likely come forward at some point, not that it will matter a whole lot in the final analysis. The 99.7 percent of the vote that Jeter did receive is the highest ever for a position player.

Hard-hitting outfielder Larry Walker, an MVP and three-time National League batting champ, was also elected. He made it by six votes in his 10th and final year on the writers’ ballot.

Former Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling missed by 20 votes, but his 70 percent bodes well for future election. He needs to get to 75 percent of the vote in his final two years on the ballot.

Another former Phillie, third baseman Scott Rolen, received 35.3 percent of the vote in his third year on the ballot.

Bowa, the great former Phillies shortstop and manager, played 2,222 games at shortstop, seventh-most all time. Jimmy Rollins played 2,227 games at short, sixth-most all-time. Omar Vizquel ranks first on the list at 2,709 and Jeter is second at 2,674.

Bowa enjoyed an up-close look at Jeter’s greatness during the 2006 and 2007 seasons when he was third-base coach for the Yankees. Jeter still had another seven seasons to go in his career, but even at that point, Bowa knew he was looking at a Hall of Famer.

“He just had an aura about him that said, ‘If you want to be a big-leaguer, watch me,’ “ Bowa recalled. “It was that way in everything he did. He never sulked if he didn’t get any hits.

“In my two years there, I don’t think I ever saw him make a mental mistake. He was always well prepared. He was very coachable and open to advice. He never jogged. He always played the right way. In big situations with the game on the line, he wanted to be at the plate. And he produced.”

Bowa compared Jeter to a couple of players he managed with the Phillies, one a Hall of Famer, one a potential Hall of Famer.

“He reminded me of Jim Thome, the way he handled himself,” Bowa said. “Very humble guys. Both team-first. If it was the eighth inning and a guy led off with a double, you didn’t have to tell Jeter to get the ball to the right side and get him over to third.

“He was a little bit like Chase Utley. You wind him up in April, say good luck and have a good year, and at the end of year he’d have a great season. He could have played without any leader or manager. Incredible work ethic.”

Like any other player, Jeter could have an off day, though not often. Bowa recalled a time in 2007 when the Yankees played an awful game. 

“I think it was a Sunday game,” Bowa said. “It might have been the worst game I’d ever seen the Yankees play.”

The performance left manager Joe Torre quietly seething. He called the team together after the game.

“I’d never seen Joe angry before,” Bowa said. “He usually got with guys one-on-one in his office if he wasn’t happy and no one knew about it. But this time, we played so bad that he felt like he had to get everyone together.”

Torre didn’t go after the 25th man.

He went right for the heart – Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

“He was all over them,” Bowa said. “It was the only time I ever saw Joe get on a guy like that. There was no swearing or anything like that, but he literally pointed them out and told them they were better than that and he expected more.”

The next day, Jeter was getting ready to do some early work with Bowa in the infield. Bowa asked him about what had gone down the day before.

“Jeter was completely accountable,” Bowa said. “He said he deserved it. That really showed me something. Here was a guy putting together a Hall of Fame career and he just got it. He didn’t take it personally.”

And he won’t take not being a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame personally, either.

Ninety-nine-point-seven percent.

We’re still talking rare air here, folks.

“The guy was just solid, man,” Larry Bowa said. “So professional. Just a pleasure to watch. I’m really happy for him.” 

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Make that 2 buy-low bullpen moves for the Phillies

Make that 2 buy-low bullpen moves for the Phillies

Drew Storen wasn't the only reliever the Phillies added early this week.

The Phils also agreed to a minor-league deal with veteran right-hander Bud Norris, according to Robert Murray.

The Phillies worked out Norris late last season but did not sign him.

Norris last pitched in 2018 with the Cardinals. He was pretty effective, posting a 3.59 ERA in 57⅔ innings with 67 strikeouts. He saved 28 games.

Relievers are so volatile from year to year that it stands to reason one of Storen or Norris will recapture some success in 2020. The Phillies have seen quite clearly over the last two seasons that big relief contracts are a gamble. They paid David Robertson, Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek a combined $57 million and all three dealt with long-term injuries.

The big wild-card in the Phils' bullpen is Seranthony Dominguez, who missed most of last season with arm injuries but could be a much-needed and useful weapon if he can revert to his 2018 form.

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