READING, Pa. — The plan is simple and logical for Reading Fightin’ Phils manager Dusty Wathan for the final month of the season:
Get first-round draft pick Aaron Nola used to pitching every five days.
No, it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when Nola next takes the mound, likely on Aug. 12 in Harrisburg, it will be his first time pitching as a member of a five-man pitching rotation. And just for good measure, there is an off-day mixed in there to make the transition smoother.
In other words, the fast track for Nola is in motion. Sort of.
“The biggest thing is we want him to finish the season and get him on the four-day rest and pitching every fifth day rather than build his pitch-count up,” Wathan said. “It’s been a long season and a competitive season with college, so we just want him to get through it.”
In his Double A debut on Wednesday night at First Energy Stadium, Nola, the No. 7 overall pick in last June’s draft, kicked off the next phase of his career solidly. In five innings, the right-hander allowed a run on six hits and a walk in a 9-2 victory over Harrisburg (Washington's affiliate). He struck out four and faced just three three-ball counts with 13 first-pitch strikes to the 20 hitters he faced.
Not spectacular, but solid.
“My arm felt good, I felt good. The weather here was great,” Nola said. “It wasn’t like in Florida [pitching for Single A Clearwater] where it was always hot.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of Nola’s first Double A start was his ability to locate every pitch in his arsenal. In the first inning the righty featured a fastball that registered 95 to 97 mph on the stadium radar gun. That fastball leveled off at 91 to 93 mph as the outing progressed, but by that point Nola was commanding his fastball to set up a plus-curve.
Not only was Nola able to throw the fastball and curve for strikes, but he also threw those strikes low in the zone. With the four strikeouts, Nola got seven ground-ball outs and he even picked off a runner on first base.
No, Nola wasn’t overpowering against Harrisburg's hitters, but he was commanding. Nola was in charge. Though he’s being held to a five-inning limit and threw 72 pitches (47 strikes), Nola said he was strong enough to continue past the fifth.
“I’m on the five-inning limit and I agree with what they’re doing -- I’m all for it,” Nola said.
Though it was just one start, it’s tough not to think about the future. Nola will finish the season at Reading and then when spring training rolls around next February, it’s possible he could compete for a job on the Phillies’ staff.
With the extent of Cliff Lee’s injury still an unknown, A.J. Burnett possibly considering retirement, Kyle Kendrick potentially seeking a change of scenery elsewhere and Roberto Hernandez working on a one-year deal, Cole Hamels will need some company on the starting staff.
Could Nola be ready by then?
“It’s an honor to be here so early and that was one of my big things -- sign early so I could get back on the mound quick,” Nola said. “It worked out for me.”
As Wathan pointed out before Wednesday night’s game, Nola is used to the big stage. He’s pitched in front of big crowds at LSU that reached 12,000 and pitched in NCAA Tournament and College World Series games. Nola also has pitched for Team USA as a collegiate all-star.
Though he’s just 21, it’s worth noting that Hamels cracked the Phillies’ rotation when he was 22 after just 36 minor-league starts.
“[I haven’t thought about next year]. I’m just trying to take it day by day,” Nola said. “I’m still in this season and I just got to Reading and I’m focused on my starts here and finishing up the season strong.”
Counting his 16 starts at LSU, Nola is up to 152 2/3 innings this season. He likely will make four more starts for Reading, adding as many as 20 innings to that total. For a pitcher just getting ready to pitch every five days, 28 starts and 170-plus innings is nothing to sneeze at.
Then again, what’s the rush? If the Phillies are going to take a step back in 2015 in order to rebuild a bit, maybe Nola can bide his time in the minors.
Whatever the Phillies have in store for Nola, he’s ready.
“I don’t know what my plan is yet. They haven’t told me anything yet,” Nola said. “Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do.”
No matter how it unfolds, the Phillies likely will want Nola to anchor the rotation with Hamels. Nola isn’t sprinting on that fast track yet, but he might be soon.