August 03, 2016
It’s almost too difficult for anyone to wrap their head around this today, on the day Aaron Nola landed on the 15-day disabled list with a right elbow strain, but two months ago, the second-year right-hander looked like the most qualified candidate to represent the Phillies at the All-Star Game.
After throwing six shutout innings against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 5, Nola had a pristine 2.65 ERA after his first dozen stars of the 2016 season. All of his peripheral stats (WHIP, K/BB ratio) were among both NL leaders and major league leaders, too.
But other than an encouraging start shortly after the All-Star break, almost nothing has gone right for the 23-year-old Nola since the season's first two months. Now he is facing at least the possibility that his first full season in the major leagues is over.
Nola will not throw a baseball for at least a week and, with just two months left in the season, even if his arm does respond positively the former first-round pick only has so much time to build his arm back up in a rehab program before rejoining the team.
“If we shut him down for two or three weeks, depending on how he reacts by the time he builds himself back up, you’re in the middle of September,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “(So) that very well could be the case. He might be shut down for the season. That will be determined after these next two weeks.”
“I’m definitely going to do everything to get back and recover from this,” Nola said. “I really hope I’ll be back before the end of the year.”
But Nola is also smart enough to understand why his team will absolutely practice caution. There is no real reason to send him back out in September on a team that well out of the pennant race.
If that’s the case, Nola will have to accept it. He was able to take at least one positive out of the news that led him to the disabled list: a strain isn’t an appointment for surgery.
“Yeah, I’m very glad it’s nothing else big or serious,” said Nola, who had an MRI on Wednesday morning. “Just a strain, I was kind of relieved. But you know, after hearing that, I do not have anything big time done to it or anything like that. I can just go forward, let it heal, and do the rehab I need to do.”
Despite his struggles in the last two months (an unseemly 9.82 ERA in his last eight starts) Nola said he didn’t feel any discomfort until Thursday night in Atlanta, when he allowed three runs in five innings of a 7-5 win at Turner Field against the Braves. Nola notified the team of the discomfort over the weekend, after throwing his regular in-between-starts bullpen session.
“I really didn’t think it was anything (during Thursday’s game),” Nola said. “(It) just kind of got sore a little bit. It kind of prolonged for the next couple of days and I told the guys. I went to check it out today and whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do.”
Mackanin said Nola had never complained of discomfort before this weekend, nor was he on the daily injury report as someone receiving any kind of regular treatment. Still, the way he was pitching throughout June and July was worrisome.
“The thing that made him so effective (before) was the deception with his fastball, because it kind of exploded at the end, and we weren’t seeing that,” Mackanin said. “(But) with no complaints from him, it’s hard to figure out, so you start thinking is it dead arm, is he not accustomed to the long grind of the season? We didn’t know. If a guy is having issues with his elbow or shoulder you look at it earlier, but he had no complaints up until that day.”
Phil Klein, a 6-7, 27-year-old right-hander claimed off waivers from the Texas Rangers on June 19, is starting in Nola’s place on Wednesday night against the San Francisco Giants. Klein, who has pitched in 36 games with Texas in the last three seasons, had a 2.13 ERA in eight games (four starts) with Triple-A Lehigh Valley before he was summoned to the big leagues on Wednesday.
But Klein is almost certainly just making a spot start. Jake Thompson, the Phillies top pitching prospect who has a 1.21 ERA in his last 11 starts, is likely to jump into the rotation within the next week.
Thompson was unavailable to pitch Wednesday because he just started for the IronPigs on Sunday.
“That might be a good, solid guess,” Mackanin said with a smirk about Thompson’s imminent big league promotion, one many expected had Jeremy Hellickson been dealt before Monday’s trade deadline.
Mackanin said the Phillies decision to not trade Hellickson had nothing to do with Nola’s ailment – nor should it have any effect. Even if the Phils had found a deal they liked for Hellickson, they could have replaced both him and an injured Nola with Thompson and either David Buchanan or Adam Morgan, who are also pitching at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
The Phillies could turn to either one of those veterans in September, when rosters expand and other pitchers in the current youthful rotation are shut down as management monitors their workloads in their first full big league seasons. Nola is hoping to be ready to jump back in if that’s the case, too.
“I hope this isn’t the end (of 2016),” he said. “I’m going to try everything I can to be back by the end of the year. Try not to rush anything, but do the rehab the correct way, what I need to do. But I feel like I can build off some of the things this year, especially near the end of the first half. Just try to build on those things and learned from them.”