Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Aaron Nola's 1st start; hittable opposing pitcher

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Aaron Nola's 1st start; hittable opposing pitcher

Phillies (1-3) vs. Nationals (3-1)
7:05 p.m. on NBC10; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies lost their home opener to the Nationals but impressed their manager in doing it, coming back from a 7-0 deficit and getting the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth inning of a 7-6 loss.

The series continues Saturday night in Aaron Nola's much-anticipated season debut:

1. All eyes on Nola
In reality, all eyes will be on Nola 32 times this season or however many times he takes the mound. He's coming off an elbow injury that cost him the second half of his season, and before that injury, he had the worst stretch of his baseball life.

On June 5 last season, Nola fired six shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Brewers to lower his ERA to 2.65 through 12 starts. What happened from there was ugly. Nola gave up 39 runs (36 earned) over 33 innings in his next eight starts as his ERA soared to 4.78. His opponents hit .367 with 14 walks.

Where was the guy with the pinpoint command?

Nola had a rough spring, but Pete Mackanin liked the velocity he saw from his 23-year-old right-hander. 

It's not velocity that made Nola a first-round pick in 2014, though. It was elite command, an ability to spot his fastball wherever he wanted, and a slurvy curveball that can completely freeze hitters.

The Nationals are not an easy first test. Bryce Harper is 7 for 11 off Nola with two homers. Daniel Murphy has a double, triple and a homer in 13 at-bats. Jayson Werth has taken him deep twice.

Nola has faced Washington six times and gone 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA. He doesn't need to go out there tonight and fire seven shutout innings, but the Phillies will want to see him enter and exit the game healthy, keep the ball low and work quickly. This early in the season, it's more about positive signs from Nola than just results.

2. Wake-up calls
Tommy Joseph needs one. So does Maikel Franco, Michael Saunders and Cameron Rupp.

Joseph is 0 for 13 with six strikeouts. Franco is 2 for 16 and has left a whole lot of men on base. Saunders is 1 for 10 and has made a few crucial outs. Rupp is 2 for 11 with five K's.

The Phillies obviously are not going to win many games with half of the lineup doing nothing. It is reminiscent of last season when the Phillies would have so many guys going cold at the same time. That's how you score 39 fewer runs than any other team.

3. Herrera's hitting, though
One guy that you can't complain about so far is Odubel Herrera. Four games into the season, he's gone 6 for 14 with two doubles and four walks.

Herrera had two more hits Friday off Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young winner who Herrera continues to have success against (see story).

Herrera and Howie Kendrick have been the Phillies' most consistent hitters less than a week into the season. Freddy Galvis and Aaron Altherr have also shown some pop.

4. Guthrie gets the start
There was some thought the Phillies would face talented young right-hander Joe Ross this weekend, but instead, they'll see veteran Jeremy Guthrie on Saturday and Stephen Strasburg on Sunday.

The Nationals selected Guthrie's contract after Friday's game. 

It's a pretty big surprise to see the 38-year-old starting during a team's first cycle through the rotation. He had a 5.95 ERA for the Royals in 2015 and didn't pitch in the majors last season, posting a 7.17 ERA at Triple A.

He's, at times in his career, been a serviceable fourth starter who limits walks. 

When Guthrie last pitched in the majors, he used a five-pitch mix: four-seam fastball around 92-93 mph, a sinker, changeup, curveball and cutter.

Put it this way: Having faced Scherzer on Friday and with Strasburg on tap Sunday, this is the game the Phillies' bats need to wake up. There won't be much of an excuse if they're silent against Guthrie and a Nationals bullpen they exposed Friday.

5. This and that
* Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris are going to get so many outs this season. Let's just hope they're meaningful outs. Both impressed Friday with the Phillies trailing by multiple runs. The back-end of this bullpen is the team's strength; hopefully, they get to use it.

* Credit to Jeanmar Gomez for easily working his way through Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman in an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth inning Friday.

* Harper loves himself some Citizens Bank Park. In 36 career games here, he's hit .306 with 12 homers, 26 RBIs and an OPS well over 1.000.

* As if that's not enough, Harper is protected by Daniel Murphy, a .313 lifetime hitter against the Phillies in 510 plate appearances. 

(How awesome is it that the Mets just gave away Murphy and Justin Turner, who have become two of the most consistent doubles hitters in the NL?)

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Odubel Herrera’s return to the dugout was so slow that home plate umpire Nic Lentz had to clap to speed him along. Herrera obliged, accelerating to an effortless jog until he left Lentz’s sight. Then he went back to a hung head and a crawling pace as he reached the steps. Boos met his ears through it all. 

Herrera was picked off at third base by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for the second out of the fourth inning on Thursday. It didn’t matter much as the Phillies beat the Cardinals, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), guided by Aaron Nola’s the best outing in a long time. 

However, Herrera made a base-running blunder at the same spot Wednesday night, when he blew through a Juan Samuel stop sign and was out by a mile at home plate to make the final out in the 9th inning of a tie game. And later on Thursday, while on second during a running count and Maikel Franco behind him at first, Herrera didn’t run on the pitch.

These are mistakes any big-leaguer should avoid. And when he’s the only player a team has signed to a long-term deal, which is supposed to last into a new era that involves winning games, the mistakes sting a bit more. 

“I’m not pleased about it,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. 

Had Wednesday night’s gaffe been avoided, maybe the Phillies could have gone on to win. Thursday’s was more embarrassing than damaging. While displeased, Mackanin, who said he thought about giving Herrera Thursday off, understood what happened this time around.

“He was running contact. And when you’re running contact, you’re susceptible to getting picked off by a catcher, especially with a left-handed hitter up,” Mackanin said. “You have to be aware of that. They’re taught to be aware of that. He just didn’t take that first hard step back. And that deters the catcher from throwing to third base. It happened.” 

The Phillies have been picked off eight times this season. Entering Thursday, only four teams had been picked off more. 

The Phillies own a run scoring percentage (percentage of base runners that eventually score) of 28.0, which puts them in the bottom third of the league. While much of that can be attributed to bad bats, mistakes like Herrera’s are not helping the cause. 

At 25, Herrera is still figuring this whole thing out. But he was the Phillies’ only All-Star last year and is supposed to be a consistent presence in the lineup. 

Andres Blanco, on the opposite end of the spectrum, first saw major-league action in 2004, and should be providing a consistent presence in the Phillies’ clubhouse. Yet on Thursday, starting at second base instead of Howie Kendrick, Blanco’s contribution on the base paths felt like the remedy to Herrera’s mental lapses.

In the bottom of the fifth, with two outs and Blanco on second base, Freddy Galvis grounded a ball up the middle. Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz sent and errant flip to second to get the final out, and Blanco was smart enough to round third after the ball got loose in the infield.Mackanin called it a heads-up play. 

“That’s the kind of players you’re looking for, the guys that are going to look for those kinds of things to happen,” Mackanin said, “and they don't assume a play is going to be made and assume they might be able to take an extra base.

“He’s a veteran. I’m glad he paid attention.”

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

BOX SCORE

When Aaron Nola pitches like he did Thursday, there aren't too many teams capable of beating him.

Nola was locked in against the Cardinals in the Phillies' 5-1 win, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings with a season-high eight strikeouts (see Instant Replay). His first seven innings were scoreless and his pitch count was at just 89, so he had the chance for his first-ever complete game and the Phillies' first of the season.

But Paul DeJong greeted Nola in the eighth with a solo homer, and after a one-out walk to Matt Carpenter, Nola's day was done. He left to a loud ovation from Phillies fans who have been waiting a long time to see this guy again.

"Well that's the Nola we all have come to know and love," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was outstanding today. ... He was painting on both sides of the plate. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups. I think he got tired in that eighth inning, but it was great to see him rebound from the struggles he's been going through."

Nola had elite command of his two-seam fastball and curveball on this day. Five of his eight strikeouts were looking as he continuously froze Cardinals hitters with two-seamers that started outside and darted back over the outside corner. Everything was low in the zone. The curveball was sharp and biting with late life, and St. Louis' hitters kept swinging over top of it.

This was the Nola worth drafting in the first round. This was the Nola who can legitimately be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do and today was me," Nola said. "I felt confident in all my pitches today and commanding all my pitches when I wanted to. It was all good in those areas.

"I always try to visualize [success]. I know what I'm capable of doing and what pitches I can command. It's just those days where you feel really good about it and you're really confident about executing to both sides of the plate."

Last year during spring training, Mackanin compared Nola's skill set to that of a pitcher he managed in 1985 in the Class A Midwest League. That pitcher was Greg Maddux. 

"I'll just say this and I probably shouldn't, but I'm just gonna say it: Aaron Nola reminds me a bit of [Maddux]," Mackanin said last February.

"He shows no fear, he's very confident in his abilities and he has the uncanny ability to locate his fastball down in the zone on both sides of the plate. And he really believes in himself."

On Thursday, Nola fit every piece of that description. And just like Nick Pivetta built confidence with his nine-strikeout performance last week against the Red Sox that carried over into a 10-K night against the Cardinals (see story), this has a chance to be a real building block for Nola.

Throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of 24 hitters will get you a long way.

"He got ahead of almost every hitter I guarantee you, he was strike one," catcher Cameron Rupp said.  

"And when you do that, that opens up so many doors with your pitch sequence, being able to pitch and get in on guys, maybe throw a purpose pitch for a ball, maybe they swing and you're 0-2 and that opens up the outer half even bigger. He threw strikes, he pounded the zone, and when you do that, you're going to have so much success. 

"That's what he did his first year-and-a-half up here. He got away from locating his pitches and the injuries, I'm sure, didn't help, but he attacked the zone and did a great job for us. ... When you do that, the sky is the limit, and he showed that today."