When he was selected with the 7th overall pick in the 1st round of the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft by the Phillies out of Louisiana State University, Bayou-born and bred Aaron Nola was a 21-year old who the club expected would be able to develop quickly and reach the big leagues in short order.
That is exactly what happened, as little more than 13 months later he was promoted and debuted in Major League Baseball last summer on Tuesday night July 21st at Citizens Bank Park.
Though the Phils dropped a 1-0 decision to the Tampa Bay Rays that night, the Nola debut was a complete success.
He went six innings against the Rays, allowing just five hits while striking out seven and walking just one.
His only blemish was a leadoff homer in the top of the 3rd off the bat of opposing starting pitcher Nate Karns, of all people.
Nola would make 13 starts for the Phillies in 2015, a half-dozen of those as Quality Starts.
In nine of the 13 he allowed the same or fewer hits than innings pitched. Known for his pinpoint control, Nola allowed one or fewer walks in more than half of those first-year outings.
“I FEEL LIKE THE GAME OF BASEBALL IS HOW SMART YOU ARE AND HOW YOU APPROACH GUYS” ~ NOLA
Though only just beginning his sophomore year in red pinstripes, he is already becoming the new face of the Phillies starting rotation.
He won’t turn 23 years old until early June, but is at the forefront of the club’s rebuilding plans.
When manager Pete Mackanin was setting up his starting rotation to begin the 2016 season, he undoubtedly received a little input from club president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak as they scouted out the schedule and plotted who would take the mound when the home opener arrived at Citizens Bank Park.
There was really only one choice – the handsome young Louisiana kid who will, along with fellow young building blocks Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, undoubtedly become one of the leading shirsey sales as spring turns to summer down at the South Philly ballpark.
This afternoon that time arrives, as Nola will step out on to the mound in front of a full house, something that is likely to be rare this season.
“I’m not concerned at all about how is going to handle,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday, per The Press of Atlantic City’s Michael McGarry. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s not going to affect him. Every game is important in the big leagues.”
Nola already has one strong start under his belt this season, having gone seven innings against the Cincinnati Reds in the season’s second game. He made 95 pitches, 73 of those for strikes, scattering four hits while striking out eight and walking none.
It was a typical Nola performance: control the strike zone with movement, keep the hitters off-balance, sneak a fastball past them once in a while, keep the Phillies in the ballgame. It is exactly what the team hopes to see from him for the next 7-8 years at least.
Nola’s style is as much cerebral as it is physical. He is always trying to stay one step ahead of the opposition hitters and game-planners.
“I feel like the game of baseball is how smart you are and how you approach guys,” Nola said recently per The Advocate’s Ross Dellenger. “You’re just trying to think the game harder, think ahead of the game.”
Jeremy Hellickson is certainly more experienced, and could conceivably receive a contract extension offer to stay at some point. Vincent Velasquez is certainly more overpowering. Jake Thompson may be called up later this summer and prove to be ultimately more talented.
But Nola was here before all of them. He is a homegrown, planned piece selected when the club first began rebuilding. He is here now to stay, pitching the home opener, and it is likely his first of many.