CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Gabe Kapler made the obvious official on Sunday when he declared Aaron Nola as his opening day starter.
"He's unequivocally the right choice," said Kapler, whose team begins the season on March 29 in Atlanta. "He's an absolute gamer, grinder, and stud, and we're proud to have him on our roster."
Nola, 24, who pitched the first two innings of Sunday's 8-3 loss to the Yankees, will be the team's youngest opening day starter since Dennis Bennett started for the Phils in 1964. Jeremy Hellickson, who started the season opener for the last two seasons, remains a free agent. Nola said pitching on opening day "would mean a lot."
"But there's a lot of games during the season, and I plan on pitching a lot of them," he said.
Nola threw 31 pitches Sunday. He allowed two earned runs on four hits, struck out three, and walked none. Both runs scored after Maikel Franco, although wearing sunglasses, lost a pop-up in the sun. Nola struck out the next batter for the second out of the inning but was then tagged for a double by Danny Espinosa. It was an otherwise fine performance for Nola, who was more focused on making sure his mechanics were aligned than on his pitching line.
Kapler's seat during spring training — on the dirt just behind the on-deck circle — offered the manager a unique vantage point of Nola's curveball. The pitch, as registered by FanGraphs, had the most horizontal break of any curveball in baseball last season. And Kapler had a nice view of it.
"You can see that thing take a sharp left turn out of his hand," Kapler said.
The Phillies may still add a pitcher before the season. Jake Arrieta remains a free agent and the Phillies talked recently with his agent, Scott Boras. But the parties remain far apart. Arrieta is seeking a long-term deal, and the Phillies, wary of signing pitchers to long-term deals, hope his demands come down as spring training continues. Even if the Phillies sign a starter, Kapler said Nola "as of this moment" would start opening day. And the manager thinks it could be the start of a season that demonstrates that Nola is one of baseball's aces.
"If you just got back to last year and just look at his performance, it lines up very nicely with the Scherzers of the world and is not far off the Greinke line," Kapler said. "We consider Max Scherzer an ace, and we're strictly looking at the performance, then we should also consider Aaron Nola an ace. From a character and make-up perspective, he's not lacking anything. He's not lacking any stuff. This guy is a real, real stud, a grinder, and someone we can depend on."