It was two innings in a fake game being played on March 2, but everyone is breathing just a tiny bit easier with regard to Aaron Nola.
Nola survived his first outing of the spring with a superb two innings of work, featuring a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with, more importantly, no pain in an elbow that caused him to miss the last couple months of 2016.
This was the first time in more than 200 days that Nola had thrown a baseball on a mound against live batters in a game where folks were keeping score, and it really could not have gone better.
My reaction to today's Aaron Nola outing. pic.twitter.com/jINs9iPY2r— John Stolnis (@FelskeFiles) March 2, 2017
He gave up just one hit and one strikeout in his scoreless outing.
Aaron Nola got me like... pic.twitter.com/7vkTNN6WrQ— John Stolnis (@FelskeFiles) March 2, 2017
More importantly, he felt good afterwards.
"It's a relief," Nola said. "The ball feels like it's coming out pretty good right now. My body feels in line. I feel strong right now, so I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing in Spring Training going forward." (quotes per MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki)
Nola made just 20 starts for the Phillies last year thanks to a UCL injury in his elbow that doctors said did not require surgery. Instead, Nola rehabbed and was throwing again by the end of last season, but no one really knew how it would respond once he started ramping things up in Clearwater.
So far, so good. He threw 30 pitches on Thursday and showed the same velocity as last season, when he averaged 90.3 mph on his fastball.
Of course, there is a big difference between throwing in early March, in games that don’t count, when all you have are 30 pitches under your belt, and throwing in mid-June, under the hot summer sun, in games that count, with hundreds of pitches piled up on that elbow.
No one is going to feel really good about Nola until he gets to the end of the season unscathed, including the manager.
"I don't foresee any [problems], but you never know," Pete Mackanin said. "I don't know if the workload will catch up to him or not, and if it doesn't, then we have a heck of a good pitcher there. But it's always going to be an issue. I'm always going to wonder if he comes in one day and says [his arm is] bothering him. But right now, I'm staying positive and hoping he has no issues."
And that is the worry.
Aside from health, the other concern is performance. Nola swears his 9.82 ERA over his final eight starts wasn’t related to his injured elbow. If that’s true, it’s hard to explain how we morphed from one of the best starters in baseball over his first 12 outings (2.65 ERA) to the pitcher we saw just before the season ended.
If the injury truly didn’t have anything to do with the decline in his performance, then that is the second question that will only be answered with time.
Everyone is concerned Nola’s elbow is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. But perhaps it never will. It hasn’t yet, not after his first start of the spring, a start that can only be looked at as extremely positive.
One down... lots more to go.