The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The sun was beaming and Aaron Nola was in attack mode, letting the ball rip through the 78-degree heat.

Just like the days back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?

"It's hot as hell down there in the summer," Nola said with a smile about his hometown.

It wasn't quite that hot Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, but Nola looked at home. He looked like himself, the Nola everybody watched in 2018 when he finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Or on second thought …

"Not just the 2018 version, but the best version of the 2018 version," manager Gabe Kapler said.

As the weather turns to warmer temperatures, the man with the most important right arm on the first-place Phillies could be turning into form. It sure appeared that way Saturday as he struck out a career-high-tying 12 batters to pick apart the Rockies in the Phillies' 2-1 win (see observations).

Nola delivered six innings of one-run ball in 106 pitches. He was firing from the get-go, striking out the side in the first inning on 13 pitches. All three punchouts were looking and punctuated by fastballs.

Five days ago from the same mound, Nola needed 38 pitches to finish the first inning against the Brewers. The weather was miserable, a wet 48 degrees at first pitch. He lasted just three frames, throwing 84 pitches in a no-decision.

That performance is now safely buried in the past.

"He was sharp, he was electric, he was running his fastball back over the plate off of the inside," Kapler said. "The curveball was sharp from the outset. When his curveball is good, you see lots of swings and misses, you see empty swings, and that's what was happening today for him."

Nola has a Louisiana coolness to him. The 25-year-old is laid-back, but he's laser-focused.

It's why the Phillies haven't been too worried about his 4.86 ERA entering Saturday or his pinpoint command not being all there through nine starts.

"When I've had conversations with Aaron after the starts that haven't been great, he's so consistent in talking about his process and that being the thing that he can control and the work that he does between starts," Kapler said. "He never comes off of that position. He doesn't cry in his soup, he's not thinking about the last outing that he had, he's already on to the next one. I think the reason that we saw him come out like lightning today is because of the work that he did between starts."

Nola improved to 4-0 with a 4.47 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 21 walks. He's 10 starts into the 2019 season and is only warming. Still, the Phillies have led the NL East and are just starting to see his best around mid-May.

"That's what I remember when I was with the Nats, facing that," Bryce Harper said. "It's getting hot out there, he's from Baton Rouge, so he likes pitching in hot weather, warm weather."

A quiet competitor like Nola knew Saturday's effort was possible, even with his previous start still fresh.

"It's baseball, anything happens," Nola said. "Last outing, I never threw 80-some pitches in three innings. I've never done it before, but it happens. Things can change really quick. Always got to trust what you're doing and keep working hard through the ups and downs."

That warm weather didn't hurt, either.

"It felt good outside," Nola said. "I got a good sweat on, I like sweating when I'm out there."

The Phillies will like Nola in the summer.

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An All-Star for the first time, one of Phillies' most important prospects trending the right way

An All-Star for the first time, one of Phillies' most important prospects trending the right way

Mickey Moniak, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft by the Phillies, has been named to his first minor-league All-Star team. Moniak is one of four players who will represent Double A Reading in the Eastern League All-Star Game on July 10 in Richmond.

Starting pitcher Adonis Medina, reliever Addison Russ and first baseman Darick Hall also got All-Star nods.

Moniak, still just 21 years old, has modest overall numbers this season. He's hit .268/.313/.442 with 18 doubles, eight triples and four home runs in 286 plate appearances. He continues to strike out about four times as much as he walks.

Lately, though, he's turned it on. Moniak has hit .309 with an .887 OPS in 22 June games. He's had multiple hits in four of his last six games.

The verdict is not in yet on Moniak. He does not look like a future superstar, but he still has enough time to develop as a hitter and add muscle. Gaining strength certainly helped Scott Kingery from Year 1 to Year 2 in the majors and Moniak should benefit from it as he continues to grow into his 6-foot-2 frame.

The Phillies badly need Moniak to pan out. Cornelius Randolph, their first-round pick the prior year, still has not hit the way he was expected to. None of Nick Williams, Roman Quinn or Dylan Cozens has turned into a difference-maker at the major-league level. Adam Haseley is on the big-league roster but sidelined another few days by a groin injury. The Phillies' outfield depth has been tested and they simply need good hitters to graduate through the farm system, even if just to use them in a trade.

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Matt Klentak stands by Gabe Kapler, who wants to make things simpler for his hitters

Matt Klentak stands by Gabe Kapler, who wants to make things simpler for his hitters

Not that it's much of a surprise, but Phillies GM Matt Klentak confirmed Monday that Gabe Kapler will be the manager for the rest of the season.

The Phillies are in a downward spiral that has seen them lose seven games in a row and 16 of 22. In less than a month, the Braves have gained 10 full games in the standings. 

But no big shakeup is imminent, at least not at the top of the coaching staff.

"Gabe Kapler is our manager. Our staff is our staff," Klentak said prior to Monday's series opener against the Mets.

"I'm very well aware of all the criticism right now of the manager, the coaching staff, of certain players. I understand why it's happening. When a team goes through a stretch like we've gone through in the last couple of weeks, people are going to ask a lot of questions. 

"My view right now is that the wrong thing to do is to point a finger at any one person and say you are the reason this is happening. I do not believe in that. We've had a tough time hitting the baseball. We've had a tough time keeping the ball in the park on the mound and we've had a really tough time with the injury bug. It's very difficult for me to say that's on any one person.  

"Let's face it: This is the same team that was in first place two weeks ago. This is the same team that looked like a juggernaut for the first two weeks of the year. This is the same team that went toe-to-toe with the best teams in the NL about a month ago. That has not radically changed. Our place in the standings has changed. We have not played good baseball. That is stating the obvious. To lose faith in our players, to lose faith in our staff is the wrong thing to do at this time. We're proud to stick with these guys and rally together."

Hitting coach John Mallee's job has come into question at a high volume over the last two weeks. This is the case any time an offense struggles. We all say hitting coaches in the majors don't really matter ... until a lineup is not hitting, in which case firing the hitting coach becomes some sort of magical solution.

It goes with the gig and every hitting coach knows it.

"I've been a part of organizations that have made in-season staff changes before," Klentak said. "You have to believe that if you're going to do that you have to believe that your alternative is better than your status quo. And I believe in our guys."

Klentak pointed out that it was just three years ago that Mallee oversaw a Cubs juggernaut that won a World Series. Of course, this doesn't mean much. It's not as if Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras were twisting in the wind before Mallee arrived or after he left. 

The Phillies' lack of offense, particularly in the power department, has been startling. This team was supposed to hit many more home runs than it has. Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins have combined for 29 home runs in 77 games. That might have been a strong number five years ago but not in 2019, when 18 players already have 20-plus homers and 63 have more than Harper's 13.

The expectation that J.T. Realmuto's power would surge as he transitioned from a bad offense and a big ballpark to a good offense and a small ballpark? Hasn't happened. Realmuto has 10 home runs and 23 extra-base hits total. Through this many games last season, he had 36 extra-base hits. 

And keep in mind, Realmuto is the only Phillie in the Top 10 in home runs at any position. (You can count Jay Bruce if you'd like, but 14 of his 20 home runs were with the Mariners and did nothing for the Phillies.)

Kapler's K.I.S.S. method

So how does this get fixed?

The Phillies have been one of baseball's worst teams against opposing fastballs. They have done damage on mistake pitches less frequently than every team in baseball except the worst offenses like the Tigers, Blue Jays, Orioles, Giants and Marlins. To try to correct this, the Phillies are simplifying the message to their hitters. 

An organization obsessed with data and the relaying of information is telling its hitters to focus on the most basic of offensive tasks.

"One thing that we're implementing now is a very simple approach of staying on the fastball, hitting the fastball," Kapler said. "We know that hanging breaking balls, you don't have to sit on, you don't have to look for them or try to hit them, they sit up there, they spin, you can be on the fastball and blister a breaking ball. 

"This is not rocket science, it's not some revelation someone came up with today to get on the fastball and stay on the fastball. This is something that most teams preach and something we've preached in the past. But it is a really good time to simplify a message for an entire group of hitters that we have historically done damage on that pitch and we will get back on track and begin to do damage on that pitch again."

Will they? Will they do it soon enough for it to actually matter in the NL East playoff picture? We shall see. The Phillies face three hittable pitchers in this series in Steven Matz, Walker Lockett and Jason Vargas. Now would be a good time to start pounding mistakes.

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