Phillies' Aaron Nola dominates, even on a day when he wasn't dominant

Phillies' Aaron Nola dominates, even on a day when he wasn't dominant

With the newcomers making their mark and incumbent Phillies position players driving in nine runs in an exciting opening day win, Aaron Nola's unsurprisingly strong start flew under the radar.

Although he walked a career-high five batters, Nola allowed just one run over six innings and struck out eight. He threw 99 pitches, recording a popout to Maikel Franco in foul ground to end his afternoon against the Braves.

Nola was not at his best Thursday but was also squeezed by home plate umpire Mike Winters. He wasn't missing the strike zone by much and at times not at all. 

"Obviously I don't want to walk four or five batters, but the misses with the fastball, I'll take that because I didn't think I was missing that bad," he said.

This start went a whole lot different than Nola's last opening day nod. Nola was cruising through 5⅓ innings last opening day when he was lifted at 68 pitches in a now infamous Phils loss. 

This time around, Nola labored more but had the full confidence of his manager, Gabe Kapler, to get through six. The events of last opening day led to a conversation between Kapler and Nola and a different approach the rest of the season. Nola is now a solidified ace. Rarely will you see him pulled out for matchup purposes unless he's struggling or his pitch count has reached an uncomfortably high number. 

"Two totally different starts," Nola said. "I was cruising through last year and I really wasn't cruising as much today. I threw more pitches, but I wanted to finish that inning and keep the game as close as possible. Gabe and I had a talk last year after opening day and he let me go and I got to my goal."

It speaks to Nola's evolution as an elite pitcher that he can post a dominant line even when he's not actually dominating. Last season's 2.37 ERA and .197 opponents' batting average may prove to be unrepeatable, but there's little reason to expect regression from Nola. He achieved those numbers because of his devastating four-pitch arsenal, his consistent delivery and his stoic manner. 

From the day he arrived in the majors, Nola had a knee-buckling two-seam fastball and a sharp, snapping curveball that can fool any hitter. But he's substantially improved his other two pitches. His four-seam fastball averaged 91.2 mph in 2016. Last season, it was 93.5. His changeup last season held hitters to a .243 batting average compared to .299 the year before.

Nola has grown into this pitcher, and that progression was a major reason the Phillies felt comfortable making not one but five win-now moves this offseason. The emergences of Nola and Rhys Hoskins provided the Phillies a stable core.

All of the talk Thursday was about the Phillies' offense. The grand slam from Hoskins after Bryce Harper was intentionally walked. The full-count, three-run home run from Maikel Franco out of the eight-hole.

About seven minutes into an interview with Hoskins, the first baseman noticed nobody had asked about the ace.

"Something we haven’t talked about yet, obviously Nola. Pretty standard out of Nola," he said. "He scuffled a little bit and then he settled in and did what he does."

Nola was helped at one point by his new battery-mate, J.T. Realmuto, who fired a perfect strike to second base to nab Freddie Freeman on a stolen base attempt. Freeman got a good jump but Realmuto had a better reaction. Realmuto has held MLB's fastest pop time — the transition from a catcher receiving the baseball, jumping up and releasing the ball — for several years.

"Nola was really good," Realmuto said. "The times he was missing, he was missing on the right side of the plate. He’s a guy who can command the baseball like no other."

The Phillies' 10 runs matched the most they've scored for Nola in his last 60 starts. With this team around him, it would be a surprise if he doesn't exceed last year's win total of 17.

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Rhys Hoskins wants to do choreographed grand slam celebrations with everyone

Rhys Hoskins wants to do choreographed grand slam celebrations with everyone

You know what’s a lot of fun? Winning.

That’s what the Phillies did on Thursday at Citizens Bank Park, which they could have used a bit more of down the stretch last season.

And the fun isn't only in the stands when things are going well, either, as Phillies players new and old showed Thursday.

What happened in the bottom of the seventh inning on opening day is something Phillies fans hope to see a whole lot more of this season in South Philadelphia.

That would be Rhys Hoskins taking a victorious stroll around the bases after sending a ball deep into the outfield stands for a grand slam and celebrating with teammates Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen in choreographed fashion upon crossing home plate.

The first home run celebration between Harper and Hoskins didn’t disappoint. It consisted of something of a “missed” high-five resulting in a pat on the back, followed by a business-like handshake. It had shades of Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews.

Following his bro-down with Harper, Hoskins did an unremarkable high-five with Jean Segura before a little ballin’ with Cutch, mimicking a Joel Embiid-style Euro step with the Phillies’ new leadoff hitter. 

Does Rhys have a different celebration with every teammate? I asked him following the game.

“Yeah. We’re getting there,” Hoskins said. “Obviously it’s still early. Some of my handshakes have to get ironed out, make sure we remember them. We got a lot of new teammates and I think the more handshakes we get to do, the more fun we’re having. That’s always a good thing.”

We can’t wait to see all of the handshakes. Bring us the handshakes.

Harper, who was intentionally walked to get to Hoskins before he hit the big grand slam, enjoyed watching Hoskins' bomb just as much.

“I find joy in seeing what my teammates do,” Harper said. “We got to do our handshake today for the first time. We were pretty pumped.”

Harper also partook in an interesting celebration with his fellow outfielders once the win was official.

“I saw that on a video game this offseason,” Harper said. “I talked to Cutch about it, he said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be great.’ Whoever the player of the game was in the outfield, they’ll get the rock, try to juke the guy and score. It was pretty cool. I liked it.”

The Phillies’ opening day win was also pretty cool. Phillies fans liked it.

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The post-win vibe in the Phillies' clubhouse: 'It's going to be fun this year'

The post-win vibe in the Phillies' clubhouse: 'It's going to be fun this year'

They turned the electricity back on at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday. On opening day 2019, the place rocked like it did in 2008. Or 2009. Or 2010. Or 2011. Take your pick.

“It felt weird,” said Maikel Franco, survivor of five straight losing seasons with the Phillies. “Everything was loud. It was a huge difference. I’ve been here five years and I’ve never seen people go crazy like that. It was a beautiful thing.”

Indeed, it was.

Time (and the next 161 games) will ultimately tell, but the Phillies looked like a rebuilt team capable of contending in their rousing 10-4 win over the Atlanta Braves in front of a sellout crowd of 44,469 (see observations). Aaron Nola showed no panic on a day when his control was unusually spotty and he was supported by three home runs that accounted for eight runs. Who knows if it will have staying power, but the Phils believe they made a little statement against the reigning NL East champs.

“It's really important for us,” said Franco, who clubbed a three-run homer in the sixth. “Everyone we're facing, they have to know and they have to understand that we have a pretty good team.”

Odubel Herrera seconded that.

“We wanted to show them that we’re here to be on top of the division,” he said. “I feel that we did a pretty good job today and we’re going to play really hard every game.

“And with today’s game, hopefully they got a little intimidated. You know, we want to scare teams. It’s fun.”

The Phillies’ lineup does have the potential to be scary. Consider, Franco led the team in hitting last year (.270), was second in OPS (.780) and third in homers (22) and is now hitting eighth because the Phils added four All-Star bats (Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto) to the top of the lineup. Herrera and Cesar Hernandez preceded Franco in the lineup Thursday. That threesome combined to drive in five runs.

“It’s just devastating for an opposing team,” Realmuto said. “I know as a catcher that when you have 6, 7, 8 like those three, that’s tough. Those are middle-of-the-lineup guys and they're hitting in the bottom of the order. It gets on you as an opposing staff. There’s really no hole in the lineup. They can’t just walk us or pitch around us to get to those guys because those guys hit just as well. It’s good to have a lineup like that.”

Speaking of pitching around guys, the Braves walked Harper with two men on base and first base open in the seventh. Hoskins made the Braves pay with a booming grand slam that brought the house down (see story). Hoskins' big blow stood like a bookend with McCutchen’s leadoff solo homer in the first.

“It was a pretty big shot in the arm,” manager Gabe Kapler said of McCutchen’s  homer. “It created a lot of confidence in the dugout.”

Much of the focus of this offseason was placed, justifiably, on the players the Phillies acquired, like McCutchen. But on Day 1 of the season, Franco, Herrera, Hernandez, Nola and Hoskins, all members of the old guard, stood out. It was particularly sweet for Franco. Imagine this: If the Phillies had been successful in signing Manny Machado around the holidays, Franco would not have been here Thursday nor would have Harper. There was no way the Phillies were signing two $300 million men.

So it all worked out pretty nicely for everyone on Day 1 of this new era of Phillies baseball.

“I know, it’s crazy,” Franco said, referring to his uncertain winter. “The important thing right now is I’m here and I’m going to do everything I can to help my team win.

“I’m so happy. It’s going to be fun this year.”

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