Phillies

Gabe Kapler coy about Sunday's starter for Phillies but roster moves likely to come

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USA Today Images/Isaiah J. Downing

Gabe Kapler coy about Sunday's starter for Phillies but roster moves likely to come

ATLANTA — Gabe Kapler is playing things close to the vest regarding Sunday's starting pitcher. The Phillies still have not announced who will start the series finale in Atlanta.

Here's what we know:

• It will not be Jake Arrieta on regular rest. Instead, the Phils will get Arrieta an extra day because of the off-day this past Thursday. Arrieta will start Monday's series opener in D.C.

• Cole Irvin will be involved Sunday in some form. He may not start, but he's likely to pitch multiple innings in relief as he did at Dodger Stadium on June 1.

If Irvin doesn't start, the other option is using an opener. However, this isn't as clear-cut as it was against the Dodgers, an extremely left-handed team with Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger and Alex Verdugo.

The Braves come at you from both sides and they are unlikely to alter their batting order because of an opener. Friday night's win was their eighth in a row and they've won all eight with this lineup. 

Atlanta is not going to move Ronald Acuña Jr. down in the order just because a right-hander like Juan Nicasio or Vince Velasquez is beginning the game. The Braves are not going to move Freddie Freeman or Nick Markakis out of their customary spots batting third and fifth.

All that to say, the mind game with the Braves Sunday is unlikely to have a big impact. 

We could wind up seeing someone like Nicasio face the first two batters of the game, Acuña Jr. and Dansby Swanson, then Kapler make the call to the 'pen for Irvin. That would seem like the right spot with Freeman batting third, Markakis fifth, Brian McCann seventh and Ozzie Albies (switch-hitter) eighth.

Roster moves coming

The Phillies could have a couple of roster moves to make Sunday to make room for Irvin and the potential return of Pat Neshek. Neshek (shoulder) responded well after a bullpen session Friday and could be activated Sunday morning. 

If those two are added to the 25-man roster Sunday, the casualties would likely be two of Ranger Suarez, Jerad Eickhoff and J.D. Hammer.

What about Quinn?

The tentative plan was to activate Roman Quinn for this Braves series but now it's more likely he's activated in D.C. rather than Atlanta.

Quinn was hit by a pitch in the shoulder Friday night during a rehab game with Double A Reading and felt discomfort on a subsequent swing. He will not play Saturday night for Reading but will go through his normal pregame routine and the Phillies will formulate a plan from there.

They do not see the shoulder issue as anything serious. Quinn is sitting Saturday as a precaution, Kapler said.

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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