Philadelphia Phillies: Flashes of dominance highlight Aaron Nola’s opening day

(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) /

Eight strikeouts and one-earned run overshadows Aaron Nola’s occasional command issues in a convincing Opening Day victory for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Vibrant rays of late-afternoon sun radiated off Citizens Bank Park where the spotlight was set for the Philadelphia Phillies‘ opening day. An exceptional chartreuse glow illuminated the feet of Bryce Harper, who ripped an emphatic fist bump to the fans after trotting out to his new home in right field for the first of many standing ovations.

Thursday afternoon’s brimming crowd spawned a sea of sparkling new number three jerseys, a warm welcome for the face of the franchise. But it was familiar faces, all around, who answered the call when the Phillies needed it most en route to a 10-4 win over the defending NL East champion Atlanta Braves.

As Ender Inciarte stepped into the batter’s box, the buzz around the park remained fixated on the $330 million man. One sizzling fastball later and the thunderous crack of J.T. Realmuto’s mitt turned the attention to the center of the diamond.

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Standing on the rubber, fresh off of a Cy Young caliber season and a touching ode to the city in the Player’s Tribune, Phillies’ ace Aaron Nola started off the 2019 season on a high note. Nola hurled all fastballs toward Inciarte, including a 94 mph precisely painted across the outside corner, freezing the Braves’ leadoff man and recording the first strikeout of the new campaign.

The first of eight strikeouts on the afternoon for Nola, it seemed like he brought his A-game. Andrew McCutchen stroked the first pitch of his Phillies’ career deep into the left-center stands and displayed the immediate impact of a much-improved offensive attack. An attack that was not always consistent when Nola took the hill last season.

On Thursday, it was Nola who appeared inconsistent at times, and he quickly relinquished the early one-run lead. After Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to lead off the top half of the second inning, he swiped second base on a seal, and a Nick Markakis single cruised past the outstretched reach of Cesar Hernandez, allowing him to score.

Struggling to control his fastball with back-to-back walks, unheard of from Nola, the 25-year-old returned to form, promptly making Braves’ starting pitcher Julio Teheran look silly at the plate and striking him out with three pitches to end the inning.

In his first outing of the season, Nola displayed flashes of last season’s first-class form. His offspeed pitches were crisp. His curveball had the familiar bite and his changeup tailed, stifling batters all afternoon. The first five victims of a Nola “K” went down looking, unable to react to the late movement and sharpshooting accuracy living on the corners of the strike zone. And for the majority of the afternoon, his fastball command was taut.

But in streaks, Nola released his four-seam fastballs high and out of the zone. On two separate occasions, his normally inflexible control of the baseball wavered. First, in the inning following McCutchen’s home run and again as he approached the century mark with his pitch count in the top of the sixth inning.

At the conclusion of his outing, exiting the game after a Maikel Franco three-run home run provided much-needed assurance, it would be ludicrous to try to nit-pick the two innings where he failed to completely shut down the Braves’ lineup. Even Cy Young, himself, occasionally allowed a baserunner to cross home plate.

Nola’s five walks on Thursday were more than he allowed in any single game last season, but his eight strikeouts eclipsed the single-game total in over half of his 33 starts in 2018. When he was on, his stuff was working. He retired the side in order three of his six innings, including a fifth inning where he struck out the side. Inciarte, who played the role of a spectator, stood paralyzed as a two-seam fastball that started on a direct flight toward his hip tailed onto the inner edge of the strike zone at the last second to close out that frame.

Those flashes of sheer dominance outweighed any hiccups and left the city confident that their ace is primed for another run at the Cy Young, and more importantly, a World Championship. 10 runs off the bats of McCutchen, Franco, Odubel Herrera, and Rhys Hoskins served as an exquisite appetizer for the feast that is to come in the 2019 season. Yes, the Phillies scored double-digits, and the man whose number was stitched on 99 percent of the backs of those in attendance went 0-for-3 (though his walk led to Hoskins grand salami).

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The only issue: he’s not a machine. Nola can’t start 162 games of the season, and in his 30-35 starts, you can’t ask him to toss a complete game every time. The unanswered questions in the rotation and the bullpen remain unanswered. But hey, this offense proved they’re able to pick up the slack.