From the depths of an elbow injury 2 years ago, Aaron Nola blooms into an All-Star

From the depths of an elbow injury 2 years ago, Aaron Nola blooms into an All-Star

PITTSBURGH — Two years ago at this time, Aaron Nola was struggling as a pitcher for really the first time in his life. His trademark command had vanished. The bite on his curveball was missing. So was the life on his fastball. Over an eight-start span, he pitched to a 9.82 ERA.

Eventually, the young right-hander was diagnosed with an elbow strain and he did not pitch after July 28. He spent the remainder of the summer and that offseason in a strength and rehabilitation program that in addition to keeping him off the operating table — there was a time when it was feared he would need Tommy John surgery — turned him into one of the best pitchers in baseball.

On Sunday night, just 34 days after his 25th birthday, Nola was honored the way the best pitchers in baseball are honored at this time of year.

He was named to the National League All-Star team and will be the Phillies’ lone representative at the game July 17 in Washington.

“It feels good, my first one,” Nola said of the honor. “I’ve watched it on TV a lot so it will be exciting to see what it’s all about and see all the All-Stars.

“I wasn't really trying to pitch to be an All Star, I was just trying to do my job for the team and try to win for the team and do my part. I've definitely had my ups and downs, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and who I am as a player.”

Nola learned the news in a brief team meeting Sunday.

“It was as proud a moment for this clubhouse as you could possibly imagine," manager Gabe Kapler said. "He earned it and every bit of praise is deserved.”

Nola was the only Phillie named to the team.

The question now is: Will Nola pitch an inning in the game? He is slated to pitch for the Phillies on Monday in New York. After that, his next start would be in Miami on Saturday or Sunday. If it’s Saturday, he could pitch in the All-Star Game. If it’s Sunday, he won’t. Kapler has not yet set his pitching schedule.

“We’re kind of balancing the honor of being in the All-Star Game with the necessity of winning baseball games for the Phillies,” Kapler said. “Our first mission is to set up Noles for long-term health, success in the first half, success in the second half, and also balancing the honor of pitching in the All-Star Game.”

Nola is tied for the league lead with 11 wins. He ranks fifth in strikeouts (116) and sixth in ERA (2.41.)

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft. At the time, the Phillies’ system was thin in pitching. Polished, smart and blessed with the ability to command his pitches, Nola was seen as someone who could rise to the majors quickly and become a solid mid-rotation contributor.

He has become so much more than that.

Kapler had seen Nola work for just a few weeks in spring training when he started mentioning him in the same breath as Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young Award winner.

If it takes sustained success over a significant period of time to be called an ace then Nola might be there. Over his last 36 starts, dating to June 22, 2017, he ranks fourth in the majors in innings pitched (233), eighth in ERA (2.70), 10th in WHIP (1.09), eighth in FIP (2.88), 12th in opposing batting (.219) and he is tied for third with 20 of those old-fashioned wins.

Rick Kranitz has witnessed Nola’s rise up close, first as bullpen coach, then as assistant pitching coach and now as pitching coach. He was thrilled to learn that Nola had been named to the All-Star team and made a point to mention how hard former pitching Bob McClure had worked with Nola.

Nola’s growth as a major-league pitcher is actually rooted back in that dark time when he was getting hit hard two years ago and his elbow started aching. (He has actually called the injury “a blessing in disguise.") While on the disabled list, Nola committed himself to an arduous rehab program set up by the Phillies’ injury rehab team. The program included building a stronger athlete, not just healing a strained elbow. Nola came out of the program stronger all over, in his core, his back, his legs, his shoulders.

“The injury changed him, no question,” Kranitz said. “It got him to focus on his legs. He really worked hard on his lower half and got his delivery into his lower half. That has given him a bigger fastball, for sure. He is throwing more with his legs than he ever has. This is a very smart guy. He realized what he had to do for a full major-league season. He got stronger. He’s cut back on some of his between-starts throwing. He knows himself really well. He repeats his delivery. He’s older than he appears, pitching-wise.”

Nola has always had command and an excellent sharp, sweeping curveball. And he also had a changeup in his pocket, though he didn’t need it much because he could get by with his curveball-fastball mix. Over the last couple of seasons while working with McClure and Kranitz, he refined the release point on his changeup and it has become a real weapon. Add in more power on the fastball and his incredible poise on the mound and you’ve got something pretty special.

“He has the ability to throw any pitch in any count,” Kranitz said. “And his makeup is great. He just battles on the mound. He has the ability to reach back for even better stuff when he needs it.”

That happened when Nola faced Baltimore’s Manny Machado in a one-run game with two outs and runners on the corners on Wednesday. With the game on the line and the count 1-1, Nola challenged Machado with a fastball that ran in on the hands and Machado popped it up. The pitch, Nola’s 103rd of the day, completed seven innings of one-run ball.

“Here’s the thing that I think is phenomenal about Aaron,” Kranitz said. “Everyone talks about the third time through a lineup and how much tougher it is. Well, look what he did the third time through that lineup in that game.”

Nola struck out five batters his third time through the Orioles lineup. He scattered three singles and when the Orioles bunched two of them in the seventh and had a chance to turn the game around, Nola challenged Machado and dispatched him.

That’s what an ace does.

That’s what an All-Star does.

Aaron Nola has become both.

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Phillies enter All-Star break off 'solid' road trip ... but it could have been better

Phillies enter All-Star break off 'solid' road trip ... but it could have been better


MIAMI – There was no music and there were no smiles as Phillies players showered, dressed and headed out of the clubhouse for the All-Star break.

They knew they let one get away.

A road trip that started with the euphoria of two straight wins in Pittsburgh ended with consecutive losses against the lowly Miami Marlins, including an ugly one Sunday afternoon in which the Phillies blew a five-run lead on their way to a 10-5 defeat (see first take).

“This was not the prettiest series by any stretch,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We'll acknowledge that.

“But it was still a solid all-around trip.”

It was. The Phillies played 11 games in 10 days and went 6-5.

But it could have been so much more than just solid considering that none of the teams the Phillies played have a winning record. It could have been so much better than just solid had the offense not been shut out twice, had it not averaged under three runs over the final 10 days, had it not bloomed briefly Sunday only to quickly wilt and not be heard from again.

On the plus side, the Phillies do go into the break leading the National League East.

But watch out in the rearview mirror. The Phils’ lead over the Atlanta Braves is just a half-game and third-place Washington is just 5 ½ back.

While Phillies players enjoy four days of rest and relaxation, the front office will be busy trying to ensure that the team stays in contention. The Phils remain hot and heavy after Manny Machado and Zach Britton. Landing those two talents from Baltimore could be a difference-maker in the division race and return the Phillies to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Everything was set up Sunday for the Phillies to go into the break on a high note. They led 5-0 after rallying for five runs against Miami starter Jose Urena in fourth inning. The Phils got four hits in the inning, including two for extra bases.

That was their entire offense for the day. There was no more and that was killer.

In the fifth inning, the Marlins rallied for eight runs to take the lead.

It all started with rookie Enyel De Los Santos, starting in place of Zach Eflin, who is out with a blister on his pitching hand, allowing five straight Marlins to reach base with one out. Cameron Maybin, the first batter to reach base, hit a solo homer and Brian Anderson, the fourth batter to reach, hit a three-run homer. Even after that, Kapler stuck with De Los Santos. The pitcher hit the next batter, J.T. Realmuto, and Kapler went to reliever Edubray Ramos with the score 5-4.

Did Kapler stick with De Los Santos too long?

“He's working such a low pitch count and really moving quickly through their lineup,” Kapler said. “For me, he was right where he needed to be. 

"I thought he pitched well up until the time he sort of just fell apart. It happened fast. I thought he did a good job of attacking the zone and working out of some jams early on. Overall, a solid performance by him. But it certainly didn't end the way he wanted it to end.”

Ramos and Adam Morgan both allowed two-out, two-run singles as the Marlins sent 13 men to the plate in the inning. But the Phillies could have gotten out of the inning with the lead had home plate umpire Todd Tichenor not called a ball on a full-count pitch to Martin Prado. The pitch was close, so close that it appeared to be a strike on replays. If the Ramos gets that pitch, the inning is over and the Phils are still up, 5-4.

“I thought it was a strike,” Ramos said. “It changed the inning completely. I thought I’d be out of the inning. But there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Catcher Andrew Knapp said, “I had it as a strike. He (the umpire) said it was down.”

There was another play in the inning that might have preserved the Phillies’ lead. First baseman Carlos Santana recorded a putout for the second out and started to run to the dugout as if he thought it was the third out. It was not clear whether Santana would have had a shot at an inning-ending double play had he been thinking that way, but the play did stand out for the wrong reasons.

After the game, Santana acknowledged that he forgot how many outs there were.

“That can’t happen,” he said.

But he also said he would have had no chance at a double play, and Kapler agreed.

“It’s tough,” Kapler said. “The way I saw it, it was probably a one-out play. Obviously, losing track of the outs is something that can't happen. But he's one of our most locked-in and focused players most of the time. I think he's earned a pass on this one.”

There will be no passes for the Phillies in the second half. When they return Friday, they will be in the heat of a pennant race and every phase of their game will be tested.

Rest up, boys. This thing is only just getting started.

“We're still going into the break in first place,” Kapler said. “I think that's going to feel good to our club. Our club needs a break. This is going to be a good, solid break for us.”

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Phillies implode in 5th inning in loss to Marlins

Phillies implode in 5th inning in loss to Marlins


MIAMI – This one hurt. No doubt about it. It hurt.

The Phillies blew a five-run lead in the fifth inning Sunday afternoon and ended up with a 10-5 loss against the Miami Marlins.

The defeat meant the Phillies lost the three game-series to the lowly Marlins. The Phils won Friday night’s game then lost two in a row.

The loss meant they finished an 11-game roadtrip with a 6-5 record, not bad, but certainly not as good as it could have been considering none of the four teams that the Phils played on the trip has a winning record.

The loss meant that the Phillies will head into the four-day All-Star break on a down note, though they are still ahead of where they were expected to be when the season started. The Phils are 53-42 and lead the NL East, though their advantage could be down to a half-game depending on the outcome of Atlanta's game Sunday afternoon.

After being shut out on Saturday, the Phillies erupted for five runs in the fourth inning Sunday. The Phils sent nine men to the plate in the inning against Marlins starter Jose Urena. Maikel Franco and Scott Kingery contributed RBI singles and Cesar Hernandez delivered a huge three-run triple with two outs in the frame.

Manager Gabe Kapler was ready to pinch-hit for rookie starter Enyel De Los Santos to keep the rally alive, but once the Phils scored two runs Kapler let De Los Santos hit. Though De Los Santos struck out, the rally stayed alive.

De Los Santos, making his second big-league start as the Phillies placed Zach Eflin on the disabled list with a blister on his pitching hand, cruised through the bottom of the fourth, but hit turbulence in the bottom of the fifth inning.

He allowed five straight Marlins to reach base with one out on two singles, two homers and a hit batsman. Cameron Maybin hit a solo homer and Brian Anderson a three-run homer.

Edubray Ramos relieved De Los Santos and appeared to get the third out of the inning with the Phillies still up a run, but his full-count pitch to Martin Prado was ruled a ball, keeping the rally alive, and the Marlins scored four more times in the inning on RBI singles by Miguel Rojas and Justin Bour against Ramos and Adam Morgan, respectively.

Earlier in the inning, first baseman Carlos Santana recorded a putout for the second out. Santana started to run to the dugout as if he thought it was the third out. It was not clear whether Santana would have had a shot at a double play had he been thinking that way, but the play did stand out for the wrong reasons.

Defense hurt the Phillies later in the game when catcher Andrew Knapp’s second passed ball of the game resulted in a Miami run.

Despite scoring five runs, the Phillies’ offense was not good. All the runs came in one inning as did all of the team’s four hits. Otherwise, nothing. That’s a concern. The Phillies averaged just 2.9 runs per game in the final 10 games of the trip.

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