Kapler tabs Nola to start season opener
CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Gabe Kapler figured why wait? Aaron Nola will be his first opening-day starter as Philadelphia Phillies manager.
“Barring anything crazy happening, he’s our guy. He is the man,” Kapler said after Nola pitched two innings in his spring-training debut Sunday, an 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees.
Still, the 24-year-old right-hander wouldn’t mind deferring to a more accomplished option should the Phillies sign one of the big-name free agents still available, such as Jake Arrieta or Lance Lynn.
“It would definitely be good to get another veteran,” Nola said before Kapler’s postgame announcement. “It’s always good to have veterans on your team, because for us younger guys it’s good to learn from them, because they’ve been in our shoes before.”
Nola is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, not far from NOLA — New Orleans, as it happens. He’s the ace of a young rotation that also could include Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively. Kapler said the decision on his starter March 29 at Atlanta was clear.
“He’s earned it. He’s unequivocally the right choice and he’s an absolute game, grinder and a stud,” the rookie manager said.
Jeremy Hellickson started Philadelphia’s last two openers following the trade of Cole Hamels to Texas. Nola will be the Phillies’ youngest opening-day starter since Dennis Bennett in 1964.
Selected seventh overall in the 2014 amateur draft, Nola made his big league debut on July 21, 2015 — 10 days before Hamels was dealt. Nola is 24-22 with a 3.94 ERA and 373 strikeouts in 356 2/3 innings, including 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts last season.
“Just you look at his performance: It lines up very nicely with the (Max) Scherzers of the world, not far off the (Zack) Greinke line,” Kapler said.
Nola gave up Danny Espinosa’s three-run double with two outs in a four-hit first, after third baseman Maikel Franco lost Aaron Hicks’ popup in the sun and allowed it to fall for a single. Nola struck out three , threw 23 of 31 pitches for strikes and acknowledged pitching the opener “would mean a lot.”
“His curveball has the most horizontal break of any pitcher in the big leagues, so the most east-west break,” Kapler said. “You can really see that thing take a sharp turn out of his hand.”
After winning five straight division titles from 2007-11 and the 2008 World Series, the Phillies have retooled. They lost 99 games in 2015 — their highest total since 1969 — and improved to 71-91 in 2016 only to drop back to 66-96 last year.
New management, led by team president Andy MacPhail and team president Matt Klentak, took over after the 2015 season and hired Kapler last October to replace Pete Mackanin as manager.
“Everybody still thinks we’re in the rebuilding stage,” Nola said. “I don’t think any of us think that. I think we’re going to compete this year and we’re definitely going to be better than last year.”