By Peter Gleason
You could have closed your eyes and imagined that Cliff Lee or Robin Roberts were on the mound yesterday for the Phillies’ home opener.
That’s how efficient Aaron Nola was.
The last time a Phillies pitcher younger than Aaron Nola started the home opener, Shibe Park hadn’t yet been renamed after Connie Mack. The Phillies had yet to win a World Series and only had one National League pennant. Roberts was in his second major league season.
It was Roberts, then 22, in 1949 who was the youngest before Nola. Roberts, too, was in his first full major league season. The Hall of Famer, however, began the season far less auspiciously than Nola. He threw only three innings, walking six and allowing seven runs in a loss to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
As for Nola?
“He pitched well enough to win,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said after the 4-3 loss to the Padres on Monday at Citizens Bank Park.
The 23-year-old Nola, less than two years removed from LSU, tossed seven innings, allowing four runs on six hits. He has yet to issue a walk this season. He also made history of his own, setting a career high with nine strikeouts.
“He made one bad pitch, really,” catcher Cameron Rupp said, referencing the curveball Padres left fielder Wil Myers mashed over the left-center-field fence in the fourth.
It was his secondary pitches that got Nola in trouble, Mackanin said. His curveball got hit hard. He used his changeup, which he worked on sparingly in spring training. But Nola set the tone with his fastball, with which he recorded the majority of his strikeouts. He commanded the pitch so well, he drew comparisons to Cliff Lee from his manager.
“Cliff, I mean, he’s outstanding,” Nola said. “I watched his career a pretty good bit. He’s a good guy to watch. For me, he’s a pretty good guy to learn from.”
Mackanin was not only impressed by Nola’s fastball but also by his demeanor pitching in front of the biggest crowd of his career. The 45,229 in Citizens Bank Park eclipsed the crowds generated by the Phillies last season except for Opening Day.
“Sure it was the home opener,” Nola said. “At the end of the day, right when I stepped on the mound, I approached it like just a regular game.”
And it was exactly the attitude the entire team has come to expect from Nola.
“I expected him to be poised,” Mackanin said. “Because that’s how he showed up to the big leagues last year.”
Added Rupp, “Nothing affects him. Nothing phases him out there.”