All eyes on Aaron Nola as he tests elbow in game competition

All eyes on Aaron Nola as he tests elbow in game competition

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Aaron Nola has passed all the tests so far.

Now they start getting a little tougher.

The 23-year-old right-hander is set to make his first start of the spring when he opposes a heavy-hitting Toronto Blue Jays team on Thursday afternoon in Dunedin.

It will be Nola's first start since July 28 in Atlanta when he went to the sidelines with an elbow injury.

Nola began last season with a 2.65 ERA in his first 12 starts. Batters hit just .212 with a .252 on-base percentage over that span.

But over his next eight starts, his ERA was 9.82 and batters hit .367 and had a .435 on-base percentage.

Nola has maintained that he did not start feeling pain in the elbow until his final start. He ultimately was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon. The injury was treated with rest, rehab and a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection. During the offseason, Nola completed all the progressions in his throwing program and has been under no limits thus far in spring training.

But he has yet to face a hitter in a competitive situation, and with that will come a bump in intensity and a stiffer test for his elbow.

That will happen Thursday and every fifth day throughout the rest of camp and into the regular season.

Nola is ready for it.

"I'm excited," he said. "It's been seven months. My bullpens have been good. My live BPs (batting practice) have been good. I feel good, really good lately. I'm ready to finally get in a game in a competitive situation and face live hitters."

Nola is scheduled to pitch two innings, the customary starting point for a starting pitcher in his first outing of the spring.

The pitcher expects to feel some butterflies before the outing but said the feeling would not be health-related. He's confident he's 100 percent healthy.

"If you don't get some butterflies, I think you get complacent," he said. "All pitchers get them. I'm sure there will be a little bit, but that's just normal."

Nola has been throwing all his pitches and expects to use them all Thursday. Command will be his objective.

"Fill up the zone, get ahead of hitters, that's my main focus," he said. "Don't fall behind. Get ahead early."

Manager Pete Mackanin will be looking for these same things from Nola.

But he'll also be looking for good health. Mackanin knows how important Nola is to this Phillies season and the team's long-term success. Over the winter, Mackanin admitted to holding his breath just a little when it comes to the pitcher's health.

"I'm very eager to see him," Mackanin said on Wednesday. "I was eager to see (Vince) Velasquez (on Wednesday) (see story) and now I'm more eager to see Nola. I know he feels 100 percent. Let's see what he looks like. I think he's going to be fine. The key for him will be when we get into June, July and August, if he's going to hold up. That's the only concern I have. Not that I don't think he will, but that's the only thing in the back of my mind. I don't foresee issues early."

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

BOX SCORE

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Phillies showed a little power in their 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday night.

Tommy Joseph provided some of it.

Vince Velasquez provided a lot of it.

Joseph crushed a two-run home run to left field and also lined a double off the center-field wall on his way to a four-hit game. The double came off his bat at 109 miles per hour. The homer was his third of the spring.

Meanwhile, Velasquez showed off his big fastball in striking out seven Blue Jays over five innings of work. Vinny Velo's final pitch of the night was a 97-mph dart past a swinging Jose Bautista.

"That pitch felt really good coming out of my hand," Velasquez said. "Sometimes my fastball slips a little bit and I yank it, but this one I got right behind and threw it right through the catcher."

Velasquez actually struck out the side in that fifth inning against three pretty good hitters in Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Bautista.

"That last inning, he really let it go," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Pitch economy remains an area that Velasquez needs to improve on. He threw 87 pitches. But he was pleased with the way he attacked hitters in that final inning of work.

"I didn't attack in one inning," he said. "But in that last inning, I stopped fiddling around and trusted my stuff. I need to do that the whole time."

Velasquez gave up just one run, a homer to Martin. He allowed five hits and walked two.

Velasquez had a busy night. He drove home a run with a ground out against Aaron Sanchez. He also walked against Sanchez and scored a run on a dash home from third base after Freddy Galvis got hung up between first and second. Galvis waved Velasquez home. After crossing home plate, Velasquez, rather humorously, almost ran into the netted backstop.

"I just had momentum. I got excited," he said. "As soon as I saw Tulo (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) make eye contact with Freddy, I booked it. He's going to think, 'Pitchers can't run,' so I showed off my athleticism."

After the outing, Velasquez pronounced himself ready for the regular season.

"I'm good to go," he said.

He made five Grapefruit League starts and gave up eight runs in 19 2/3 innings. He walked nine and struck out 25.

"It's been a strong, healthy, successful spring training," he said.

Velasquez will likely start the home opener on April 7. He will need to get some work in this weekend. The Phillies leave Florida on Friday. He could stay behind for a day and pitch at the minor-league complex if needed.

Offense clicks
The Phillies had 12 hits. They had 15 in Sunday's 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays again on Tuesday night. That game will be in Clearwater. Aaron Nola will start against Marco Estrada.

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The pathway for Andrew Knapp to make the Phillies' opening day roster as the backup catcher was cleared way back in November when he was added to the 40-man roster.

The job all but became Knapp's on Monday when the team released two veteran catchers who were not on the 40-man roster. When Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday were let go, Knapp became one of just two catchers in camp, the other being starter Cameron Rupp (see story).

So it's pretty obvious that the 25-year-old Knapp will open the season with the big club -- even though nothing will become official until rosters are filed with the commissioner's office this weekend.

"Obviously there are four or five days left," Knapp said. "I'm just going to keep trying to make good impressions and try to win a job. I'm keeping my head down, trying not to think about it too much."

Knapp was the Phillies' second-round draft pick of Cal-Berkeley in 2013. He has never played in the majors.

"It would be a dream come true," he said. "Everyone hopes to get called up at some point but to make a team on opening day would be pretty special and it would be the best moment in my career so far."

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin acknowledged that Knapp would probably make the club.

Mackanin would like to have the rest of his roster in order over the next day or two.

"As soon as possible," he said. "Because the last four or five games I'd like to play almost as if it were a season -- using the bullpen that way, using the bench in a certain way, seeing what it looks like, our bench guys, all our hitters. We just don't want to make a bad decision so we're just going to string it out as long as we can."

Roster questions must still be answered on the bench and in the bullpen.

How does the bench shape up? Andres Blanco, Aaron Altherr and Knapp are set. The Phils are expected to go with a five-man bench so that leaves two openings. There are four players vying for those spots: Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi and Jesmuel Valentin. Valentin has impressed, but at 22 years old, he would benefit from playing every day at Triple A.

Mackanin praised Stassi's work on Monday. If Stassi makes the club, the final spot would come down to Coghlan and Nava.

"Stassi has obviously made a great impression, mainly because, not necessarily because of his results, but the fact that he had a lot of quality at-bats," Mackanin said. "It looks like he can handle making adjustments to the different pitchers and different situations. He seemed to handle left-handers well. He made a good impression, as has Coughlan. Nava has also been consistent throughout the spring."

Stassi, Coghlan and Nava are all non-roster players so the Phils would have to clear 40-man roster space to add any of them.

Two spots remain open in the bullpen. Adam Morgan, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Alec Asher and Cesar Ramos are the candidates. All but Ramos is on the 40-man roster.

How will this all shake out?

More answers are probably coming Tuesday.