DUNEDIN, Fla. — It had been 217 days since Aaron Nola stepped on the mound in a game, so 21 minutes of early March baseball will not assuage fears about the pitcher's right elbow. The Phillies, still, find comfort in this: For 30 pitches in two innings Thursday, Nola's arm remained attached.
There are more tests to pass. Plenty more. The first, despite its happening in the Grapefruit League, carried some importance.
"It felt all of seven months," Nola said after his two scoreless innings. "I didn't really know how long it was until I counted. It felt like forever."
Nola is the most important player in an uneventful Phillies camp; that status was guaranteed last summer, when Nola succumbed to ligament sprains and tendon strains, and the Phillies opted for a conservative treatment. They intend for him to again be a rotation mainstay.
He looked erratic but composed in his first game since last July 28. Nola tossed two scoreless innings with 16 of his 30 pitches for strikes. He reached 94 mph a few times, according to the Trackman system installed at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, with a fastball that sat in the low 90s. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak watched from the stands behind home plate. The Blue Jays hit two hard balls. They grounded out four times.
"The best thing about that game was Aaron Nola," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said after an 8-8 tie with Toronto. "He looked really good."
Nola sensed some extra adrenaline.
"I think that just comes from my body having rest and doing what I needed to do strength-wise and conditioning-wise in spring training," Nola said. "I'm just trying to maintain that and get stronger before the season starts."
The Phillies and their young pitcher have all along proclaimed his healthiness. Skepticism, especially when elbows are involved, is prudent.
"I'd feel totally comfortable if we get into June and there aren't any issues," Mackanin said.
The plan is for Nola, the former seventh overall pick, to be the Phillies' fifth starter. He was so good so fast, but the downfall was even faster.
Side bullpen sessions and live batting practices can offer only so much information about a pitcher returning from a long absence. Nola generated one swing-and-miss in his 30 pitches. He threw first-pitch strikes to five of the seven batters he faced. The proof, for Nola, will be his ability to command his fastball. He had two three-ball counts in the first inning. It was, after all, March 2.
Nola started Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the first batter in the second inning, with a curveball for strike one. He threw a 1-2 change-up. Saltalamacchia whiffed.
"It's a relief," Nola said. "It's definitely great to get back in a game situation again. Moving forward, I want to get back into my routine again, and I'm looking forward to throwing more games."
Pitchers are fragile; the latest reminder arrived Thursday morning, some 150 miles south at Red Sox camp, where ace David Price was sidelined by a potentially serious arm injury. The Phillies have invested much of their rebuilding in young pitching. They will resist, for now, expensive arms that could break.
Nola may always be an injury risk because of his mechanics, which some observers pegged as problematic while Nola was a collegiate standout at Louisiana State.
"Sometimes we take it for granted," Nola said. "I've never been hurt or on the disabled list before. . . . So I just tried to embrace everything during rehab, and right now I'm not taking anything for granted."