In the midst of a hot Philadelphia summer, Aaron Nola is becoming a sizzling sensation.
His major league debut last week was a 1-0 loss, but one in which he threw six innings of five-hit, six-strikeout ball. Frustrating, yes, but highly promising.
His first major league win came Sunday in Chicago, an 11-5 triumph over the Cubs at venerable Wrigley Field, throwing 7.2 innings, allowing four runs and five hits while striking out six.
Philadelphia fans are notorious for chewing up sports figures like they were a cheesesteak. Fans there threw “D” batteries at catcher J.D. Drew after a contract dispute. They cheered when Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending neck injury at old Veterans Stadium.
But so far, Nola is a favorite son. No Phillies prospect made it this far, this fast since Pat Combs in 1989, Nola having been drafted just last June during his junior season at LSU.
In a poll by the Philadelphia Daily News asking fans what had them the most excited about the Phillies right now (the team has won eight of nine), 35 percent said this last-place team in the National League East is suddenly fun to watch.
Twenty-eight percent said they were most excited about Nola.
The rarity and new car smell of Nola’s narrative is a large part of his appeal. For LSU coach Paul Mainieri, it’s pretty much the same old story.
And he couldn’t be happier.
“Number one, I’m not surprised that he got there,” Mainieri said Monday after returning from Chicago to watch Nola’s win firsthand. “The only thing that would have kept him from getting there would have been the organization’s decision not to move him up quickly.
“Two, I’m not surprised by the success he’s having. I watched him pitch 40 games at LSU. Every game seemed like a carbon copy. Once he got to pro ball, the line score seemed to be the same: six or seven innings pitched, four hits, six or seven strikeouts and no walks. It didn’t matter if it was the SEC or any level of the minors, and it didn’t matter that it was in the majors, either.”
It was Nola, who seems to have this built in governor on how high or how low his emotions can go, who reminded Mainieri of the way he used to pitch during a sequence in his first game against Tampa Bay.
“I used to say you couldn’t tell if he was up five (runs) or down five,” Mainieri said, “not that he ever got down five much.
“His first batter in the major leagues got a lead off double. Then he goes strikeout, strikeout, ground out. I was watching the game in my office with my son Tommy, and I turned to him and said, ‘We’ve seen that before, haven’t we?’
“That’s the greatness of Nola. He makes better pitches. He gets himself out of the jam. His confidence never wanes.”
Nola was nervous the day before, watching as Phillies ace Cole Hamels became the first pitcher to no-hit the Cubs in 50 years.
Hamels got a bottle of champagne from his teammates for his achievement. What did Nola (barely old enough to drink legally at 22) get?
“I got the ball,” he said. And, “I’ll stick with some water.”
Friday is the major league trade deadline, and rumors are hardening that Hamels will be dealt to a contender. The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers are seen as frontrunners.
Already the speculation is that if Hamels is traded, Nola will ascend. Maybe not into Phillies staff ace territory, but at least one of its top two or three starters for 2016.
Again, Mainieri said, nothing new for the big Baton Rouge right-hander.
“He was the ace at Catholic High,” Manieri said. “This experience at LSU groomed him well for the major leagues. Pitching in front of big crowds. Being under the microscope. He handled it so well.”
Mainieri made sure Sunday he got to the ballpark so he could visit with Nola down near the wall for about 15 minutes before the game. Same old Aaron, Mainieri observed, excited to pitch in front of 41,000 people, but calm and collected as always.
“I was sitting in the Cubs general manager’s box,” Mainieri said. “It was all I could do to bite my lip and not cheer.
“But I wasn’t surprised.”
The ability to impress but not shock has always been one of Nola’s best traits.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.