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.