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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