Aaron Nola passes the first of many tests 7 months after elbow injury

Aaron Nola passes the first of many tests 7 months after elbow injury

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The top starting pitchers in the major leagues throw over 3,000 pitches in a season, so it would be silly to get overly excited about the 30 that Aaron Nola threw in a Grapefruit League game on Thursday afternoon.

But make no mistake: This was a positive development.

The moment that manager Pete Mackanin, pitching coach Bob McClure, the front office and Nola himself had waited for all winter came and went without a hitch as Nola made a smooth spring debut against the Toronto Blue Jays (see game breakdown).

Pitching in a competitive situation for the first time since he was shut down with an elbow injury on July 28, Nola worked two innings and did not allow a run. He gave up a hard-hit single and struck out a batter while getting four groundball outs.

The result that mattered most, however, was the 23-year-old right-hander's health. He emerged from the first of many tests this spring and beyond with a smile that spoke volumes.

"It felt good, really good," Nola said. "The ball feels like it's coming out (of his hand) pretty good right now.

"It's a relief."

The radar gun offered an indication of how good Nola felt. He hit 94 mph several times, well above his average fastball velocity of 90.3 mph last season.

"I think that just comes from my body having rest and doing what I needed to do strength-wise and conditioning-wise," Nola said. "I'm just trying to maintain that and get stronger before the season starts."

Nola threw 16 pitches in the first inning and 14 in the second. The only hit that he gave up was a bullet off the left-field wall by Jose Bautista on a 3-1 fastball in the first inning.

Even filled with adrenaline and throwing harder than usual after seven months of rest and rehab, Nola would have a tough time getting a 3-1 fastball by Bautista, one of the game's most feared hitters the last decade.

"I guess I was amped up a little bit just because I hadn't been out there in a while," Nola said. "It felt all of seven months. I didn't really know how long it was until I counted. It felt like forever. So it's definitely good to get back out there again.

"Sometimes we take it for granted. I've never been hurt or on the disabled list before. It kind of brought me back to don't take it for granted because it really sucks to be taken away when you can't even throw. So I just tried to embrace everything during rehab and right now I'm not taking anything for granted.

"It's a new year and I'm just going to focus on maintaining my body and keeping it healthy."

There will be more tests for Nola and his elbow as the spring unfolds and his workload intensifies. And, lest we forget, Mackanin has often made the point that he wants to see how the pitcher holds up over the long haul of a big-league season before he pronounces Nola to be out of the woods.

It's a long journey. But the first few steps were positive.

Tonight's lineup: Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in after day off

Tonight's lineup: Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in after day off

The Phillies, winners of six straight, are using a more traditional lineup for tonight's series open in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.

Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, and Cameron Rupp are all back in the lineup after getting Thursday afternoon off against the Marlins. Hernandez is back in his usual leadoff spot, while Joseph is hitting seventh and Rupp eighth. Freddy Galvis is back in the two-hole.

Maikel Franco will look to continue his hot streak tonight against Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda. Franco is 9 for 23 with a double, two homers, 10 RBIs, three walks and just one strikeout during the Phillies' current winning streak.

Franco is 2 for 5 with a strikeout and two singles in his career against Maeda.

Here is the Phillies' full lineup.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Aaron Altherr, LF
7. Tommy Joseph, 1B
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P

And the Dodgers' lineup:

1. Andrew Toles, CF
2. Corey Seager, SS
3. Justin Turner, 3B
4. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
5. Yasmani Grandal, C
6. Chase Utley, 2B
7. Cody Bellinger, LF
8. Enrique Hernandez, RF
9. Kenta Maeda, P

For more on tonight's game, check out Corey Seidman's game notes.

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Next 15 games will show us who the Phils are

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Next 15 games will show us who the Phils are

Phillies (11-9) at Dodgers (11-12)
10:10 p.m. on The Comcast Network; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Draft, schmaft. The streaking Phillies are the best story in town.

OK, maybe not until Monday. But there's a buzz around this Phillies team, which has won six games in a row but begins a tough road trip Friday night in L.A.

Let's take a look:

1. Daunting stretch commences
The Phillies played well for the first seven weeks last season and carried a 25-19 record into a difficult road trip through Detroit and Chicago.

They won one game on that trip, beginning a stretch of 19 losses in 24 games. With that, their season was effectively over.

"We've just got to continue that for a little bit longer than we did last year," Pete Mackanin said after Thursday's win.

It won't be easy. The Phillies have three at Dodger Stadium, then four at Wrigley Field against the defending champion-Cubs, then they play six of their next eight against the Nationals, who've been the best team in baseball this month. (They also have a two-game series with the Mariners in there.)

Even if the Phils go something like 6-9 during this upcoming stretch, they'd emerge out of it 17-18, which would be a more-than-respectable start given the difficulty of their early-season schedule.

The good news is that after facing the Nationals six more times the next two weeks, the Phillies don't play them again until September.

2. Be like Maik
Maikel Franco's hot bat has carried the Phillies over the last week. 

During the six-game winning streak, he's gone 9 for 23 (.391) with a double, two homers, 10 RBIs, three walks and just one strikeout. The grand slam was great but the best sign has been the way he's used the whole field and not gotten himself out.

Franco is hitting mistake-pitches right now. It's something we haven't seen him do consistently the last two seasons because of his over-aggressiveness.

This hot streak won't last forever — in fact, it might not even make the trip out West. But Franco has indeed shown that when he's seeing the ball well, he can carry an offense. We used to say that often about the Phillies' previous cleanup hitter, didn't we?

3. Also, be like Eick
The Phillies have played so well the last week that even the national folks at MLB Network took notice Thursday night.

Greg Amsinger, Dan Plesac and Eric Byrnes did two whole segments on the Phillies, and at the end of one of them Plesac said that, "When this team is ready to contend again, Jerad Eickhoff will be front and center."

Eickhoff is finally getting some recognition.

Every athlete in every sport will tell you consistency is what they seek the most. It's as cliche as it gets, and it's usually meaningless because nothing in sports is totally consistent. You're hot for a few weeks, teams adjust, a cold spell begins, etc.

Well, Eickhoff is totally consistent. He's pitched six or more innings in 26 of 37 starts the last two seasons and he's allowed three earned runs or less in 31 of them.

Every fifth day, the Phillies know what they're going to get: at least six quality innings that keep them in the game and provide them a chance for a late win.

The Phils never seem to hit for Eickhoff, who is 0-1 this season despite stellar numbers: a 2.55 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, more than a strikeout per inning and a .200 opponents' batting average.

Eickhoff has been considerably better at home than on the road during his brief career, posting a 2.95 ERA at Citizens Bank Park and a 3.80 ERA everywhere else.

He's never pitched at Dodger Stadium, a ballpark that definitely favors pitchers.

Eickhoff's lone meeting with the Dodgers came last August. It was one of the few games he allowed more than four runs, but the Phillies actually provided some offense to get him off the hook. He struck out eight but was taken deep by Justin Turner and Yasmani Grandal.

4. A look at the Dodgers
Over are the days when the Dodgers had too many productive outfielders to play at one time. Matt Kemp has been traded twice, Andre Ethier can't get on the field, Joc Pederson is on the DL and Yasiel Puig has become a mediocre player.

The Dodgers' lineup looks a lot different these days, especially with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez shelved temporarily with a forearm injury that's bothered him for months.

Turner and Corey Seager are the two standouts in L.A.'s lineup. 

It's often mentioned that the Mets shouldn't have let Daniel Murphy walk, but losing Turner hurt nearly as much. Since signing with the Dodgers in 2014, Turner has hit .300/.368/.491 with 90 doubles, 50 home runs and 201 RBIs in 407 games. He's coming off an insane second half last season and leads the NL with nine doubles.

Seager has so far lived up to every bit of hype. In 898 plate appearances, he's hit .312 with a .900 OPS. He walks, he has massive power, he hits doubles (40 last season) and plays really good defense.

The key to holding the Dodgers in check is getting past that 2-3 of Seager and Turner. The rest of the lineup is lacking right now with Gonzalez, Pederson and Logan Forsythe banged up.

The Dodgers earlier this week called up one of their top prospects in first baseman Cody Bellinger. He's 1 for 10 with five strikeouts through three games. He entered the season as Baseball America's No. 7 prospect in the majors. The guy has hit bombs at every minor-league level.

5. Phils face Maeda
• The Phillies will face second-year Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda, who went 16-11 with a 3.48 ERA last season but hasn't pitched well yet in 2017. In four starts, he's 1-2 with a 8.05 ERA and has allowed seven home runs in 19 innings.

Maeda doesn't go too deep into games. He's lasted less than six innings in 21 of his 36 starts with the Dodgers.

Maeda got the win both times he faced the Phillies last season but didn't pitch particularly well either time. He gave up five runs in 11 innings on four homers. The home runs were hit by Aaron Altherr, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez and Cameron Rupp.

Galvis and Hernandez each reached base against him three times.

Maeda has five pitches: a four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, sinker and curveball. He primarily uses the fastball and slider against righties but will throw any of those pitches to a lefty. The changeup has been by far his best pitch in the majors (.204 opponents' batting average, no home runs allowed) and the curveball has been by far his worst (.383).