READING, Pa. — Playing in front of more than 12,000 people during his days at LSU, Aaron Nola admitted he was accustomed to playing on a big stage.
When he made his Double-A debut Wednesday for the Philadelphia affiliate at Reading, Nola pitched before a crowd half the size of his college days, but the start was as significant as any of his college outings.
With a crowd of over 6,000 nearly filled to capacity in a frenzied playoff environment, Nola not only took another step in his own career, he also took another step in the Phillies’ hopes of developing a frontline starter from the minor league system.
There has been plenty of speculation about Nola’s mercurial rise to Double-A during the same season he was the club’s top draft pick this June, an ascent that former top pick Brad Brink made to Double-A in 1986.
That talk has been fueled by the Phillies’ lack of a budding hurler in the higher levels of the organization coupled by the tangled and lengthy contract status of veterans Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, and Kyle Kendrick, all of whom have been injured and ineffective at times. And those starters’ lack of consistent performances have been on the reasons for the club’s stay in the basement of the National League East.
There also was the recent meltdown of 2010 top pick Jesse Biddle, who appeared to be on a fast track from Reading only to leave the organization for a few weeks before he recently resurfaced at high-A Clearwater.
In other words, Nola easily can be their latest baseball hero.
But the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Nola isn’t frazzled, or anxious to make a big splash in the near future. Instead, he would rather slowly matriculate at his own pace toward the big show.
Yet Nola’s debut provided some assurance to the Phillies’ brass that he could be a solution to their pitching problems.
The former Southeastern Conference Player of the Year threw a commendable 72 pitches (47 strikes) over five innings, allowing one run and six hits while striking out four and walking one. He even legged out a chopped bunt attempt that was ruled a hit in his first at-bat during a seven-run inning that gave him a 9-1 cushion when he left the game. The right-hander’s fastball consistently was in the low 90s, and his curveball hovered in the 70s and 80s.
Before he came to Reading, the 21-year-old made seven starts with Clearwater and had a 2-3 record and with a 3.16 ERA, 30 strikeouts and five walks in 31.1 innings.
“I thought I did OK for the first time out there,” said Nola, who relied heavily on his two- and four-seam fastballs to begin the game before he mixed in his curveball. “I knew I made some mistakes, but I quickly worked to correct them. I left my change-up over the middle, and a guy hit an RBI (double) off of it.
“It’s different up here. You’re facing good guys. They’ve learned a lot. They’ve been up here longer than I have. It’s a learning experience, and getting out on the mound more and more is the key. But I knew this (move) could happen, and I’m glad the Phillies have confidence in me to be here. I want to continue to develop my off-speed pitches and also the movement on them.”
“(Reading) is where he will likely be next year,” said Joe Jordan, Phillies’ director of player development. “We liked what we saw from him (in Clearwater) and believed he was ready for the next challenge. He’ll look to build some innings here for the rest of the season.”
With his first start at Reading, Nola has accumulated 152.2 innings this season, including his 16 starts at LSU. So far, the Phillies have limited his outings to five innings. He likely will remain in a five-man rotation at Reading, where he will make his next start Aug. 12 at Harrisburg, Pa. The Phillies expect him to make a minimum of four more starts after his debut and have restricted him to 170 innings this summer.
Nola has endured, yet has downplayed the situation.
“Yea, I can feel it,” he responded to the amount of innings he has pitched. “But my arm felt good in this start, and I knew I could have thrown a few more innings. I just have to follow what the Phillies want me to do at this point. It has been a long year, but these guys in the minors have had a long year, too.
“My arm feels good, and so does my body. It will be great pitching here because the weather is better and not 95 degrees all the time. Maybe I can get to a four-man rotation, but I just have to see how it will go.”
Reading pitching coach and former major leaguer Ray Burris said he thinks Nola is on a solid track.
“He pitched his way out of some potential trouble and mixed his pitches well,” Burris said. “He has a lot of confidence out there and really has faith in his stuff. He was able to keep a lot of batters off-balance, and that will help him.
“He looks like he has been pitching here all year.”
“He (Nola) didn’t look like he was here for the first time,” added a local pro scout, who wished to remain anonymous. “He looked like what everyone expected when the Phillies drafted him. He is very smooth and deceiving with his pitches. (Nola) works the corners well, and his fastball has some bite to it.
“He’ll need to get a little battle-tested, but if he stays healthy, he should make the next move soon.”
That move — already predicted by the Philadelphia faithful — would be a spot eventually alongside Cole Hamels in 2015, depending on his 2104 conclusion and a solid spring training. Instead, Nola would like to cross paths someday with older brother Austin, who is an infielder and having a steady season with Double-A Jacksonville of the Southern League.
“Having my brother and me in baseball at the same time is cool,” Nola said. “He and my family have always supported both of us, and now they have a busy schedule. But I know I just have to take it day by day here.
“This was one start, and I know I have a lot yet to learn. I’m in no rush to move on, and I haven’t really thought about the Phillies’ plans. I know I have to continue to develop my pitches and continue to adjust my game to the competition.
“It has been a great experience so far. If I can continue to develop, I’ll be happy.”
If he does, Nola will bring plenty of positive thoughts to Phillies’ fans.