READING, Pa. — On a high-humidity Sunday morning approximately two hours before game time, Aaron Nola had finished his pregame running and his face was covered in sweat.
“This is a lot like being back home,” the former LSU star and Baton Rouge native said. “It feels good. I know some guys don’t like it. But I am used to it. Everything feels good right now.”
Nola has plenty of reasons to feel like he does. He sparkled at Philadelphia’s Double-A Reading club over the first two months of the season during which he had a 7-3 record with a minute 1.88 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 76.2 innings after he was the club’s opening-day pitcher. Nola was dominant as he walked two batters just once and twice allowed more than two earned runs in his 12 starts.
As a result, Nola, the club’s top pitching prospect, was promoted to Lehigh Valley, the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, last Sunday. He made his first start Thursday — earning the victory in a 3-0 win over Buffalo with five scoreless innings, four hits, one walk and seven strikeouts, although he had to use 98 pitches — and appears to be on the fast track for a late summer arrival with the parent club.
“When he first got (to Reading), he needed to work on some of his pitches,” said a major league scout who regularly attends games in Reading. “He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he had really fine-tuned his pitches.
“He really has learned how to pitch at this level. I’d say he is a No. 3 starter now, but he has the potential to be a top of the rotation guy.
“He doesn’t get rattled.”
Steady as he goes
Keeping his composure has been Nola’s calling card. Since he made his debut at Reading in August 2014, the 22-year-old right-hander has kept an even keel. He hasn’t been rattled despite being under the heavy spotlights of the Philadelphia-area media that carefully has chronicled his every start in anticipation of a call to the parent club. Nola’s appearances at Reading normally drew a sellout crowd of more than 9,000.
“I’m just going out there to do my job,” Nola said. “Pitching here is similar to pitching in college. They have been drawing some good-size crowds, and the fans here are very supportive and knowledgeable. It has been pretty cool to play here.
“I have been throwing well lately, and my secondary stuff has been getting better. When I leave some stuff over the plate, I have learned how to compensate. I now know that I can’t get upset over a bad pitch, but I now am able to recover better. It is really about keeping my head in the game and staying focused at all times.
“But when I don’t have my best stuff, it is about keeping my team in the game.
Along with recovering from bad spots, Nola had pitched in more than five innings in seven of his 12 starts at Reading after being on a five-inning limit at both Clearwater and Reading last season.
“I feel a lot stronger this year,” Nola said. “I like this year, as I’m going as deep as I can in games and giving the team the best chance to win. Sometimes, I know I can only pitch five innings. I also have been working on my pitches more this year and I want to work on my breaking ball and fastball to have them be more consistent.”
Reading manager Dusty Wathan watched the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft adjust his overall game and pitches.
“He has done a better job at holding runners,” Wathan said. “His curve and change have been more effective. We have watched him pitch late into games, and he still has good movement on his ball. That’s a very good sign.”
Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan shares those sentiments.
“The process and the big pieces have been there for him,” Jordan said. “We expect him to be a starting pitcher that can get deep into games consistently. He’s looking the part of a big league pitcher.”
Work to do
Yet Nola isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I know I have to get better,” he said. “I’m not totally there. I need to work to be consistent and still get better in every area. There are always things to work on. I know I should never get totally comfortable.”
With his third promotion in less than a year, Nola plans to keep everything in perspective with the hype surrounding him. Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Nola will be kept on a steady pace, and the parent club’s dismal season would dictate that path.
But Nola’s mercurial climb has dictated a heightened rate to the majors.
“I know I have to stay focused on the present, and I think I have done a good job in blocking out all that stuff,” Nola said. “I have always been that way. I just have tried to take advantage of the opportunities I have here and having baseball be my job.
“I know if I mix my pitches well and throw with a purpose, everything else will take care of itself.”
Being nearly 1,100 miles from his home in Baton Rouge, Nola has monthly visits from his family. His mother and aunt made a visit in June, and Nola expects another family visit in July. He also stays in contact with his older brother Austin, a shortstop with the Miami Marlins’ Double-A Jacksonville club.
“My family tries to visit as much as they can,” Nola said. “It is a far ride from Baton Rouge, but that’s part of the job. I keep in contact with my brother, and we support each other. I watched some of his games in the minors growing up, and I got a good feel with what this might be like.”
He has gained good insight about how to make a trek to the major leagues in his short stay in the Phillies’ system.
“When I don’t have my best stuff, I have to concentrate more on every pitch and have my defense working for me,” Nola said. “I had a good defense in Reading. I have been better on my pitch calling and working with my catchers to be on the same page. It is also about adjusting to the batters. Right now, I just have to take it start by start. It has been fun and exciting, but I can’t look too far ahead. I can’t control when and where I go. There will be nights when there is everything working, and those are the fun nights. It is just a matter of having more of those types of games and let everything else take care of itself.”
If they do, Nola will be sporting some red pinstripes in the near future.