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April 11, 2016

Nola looks to keep encouraging starting trend alive in home opener

Phillies MLB
072115_Nola_AP Chris Szagola/AP

Aaron Nola will look to take the momentum the Phillies gained in New York this weekend – and that the starting pitching has had since Opening Day – into the Phillies home opener at Citizens Bank Park on Monday afternoon.

After a successful weekend in New York that followed a forgettable week in Cincinnati, the Phillies return home for the first time in the 2016 regular season with a little momentum.

They’ve won two in a row, and against the defending National League champions. Their bullpen had a miraculous turnaround in Flushing. (Yet, somehow, the world-wide leader in power rankings has the Phillies behind two teams who have yet to win a game).

The Phillies will look to build a winning streak (raise your hand if you thought you’d be reading that heading into last weekend) when they send Aaron Nola to the mound this afternoon in the home opener at Citizens Bank Park.

The team is expecting a sellout. It will be the largest crowd that 22-year-old Aaron Nola has ever pitched in front of and his manager is “not concerned whatsoever.”

“When you make your major league debut and handle it the way that he did, even if there’s 20,000 people, that’s big enough,” Mackanin said. “I have no about in my mind that it’s going to affect him, the size of the crowd. Every game is important in the big leagues. And if you go back to his major league debut, he didn’t look like he had any fear at all.”

Nola pitched in front of just under 30,000 in his MLB debut in Philly last July. In his second start, a day after Cole Hamels’ no-hitter, Nola earned in first major league win against one of the NL's top hitting teams in front of 41,123 at Wrigley Field. So, yes, he should be fine and jitter-free on Monday.

The Phillies starting pitching has been fine since the start of the season, really. While the bullpen has been like a box of chocolates, and the offense has been largely inconsistent, the rotation has managed to pitch into the sixth inning in four of its six games, led by Jeremy Hellickson (who has done it in each of his two starts).

While it’s an extremely short sample size, the Phillies starting pitching staff’s 2.97 ERA ranks 9th best in baseball, its .187 opponents batting average is 2nd best (only behind the Los Angles Dodgers), it’s .568 opponents OPS is 3rd, as is its 0.93 WHIP, and its 4.25 K-BB rate is 6th best in baseball.

Of course, this is exactly how Pete Mackanin and Co. drew it up going into the season.

“We were hoping (so),” Mackanin said. “That was the plan, to set the tone where we could go late into the game knowing we weren’t the greatest hitting team in the league, but that we had the chance to score enough runs if we stayed close. My thought going into New York – let’s say we’re facing (Noah) Syndergaard, (Matt) Harvey and (Jacob) deGrom and the rest of them. If our guys pitch into the seventh inning and keep it close, then it negates that. And that held true if you think about it. The first two games in Cincinnati we had a chance to win, because we were in the game. We just couldn’t hold into the lead. But this early into the season, that’s definitely set the tone for what we hope is going to transpire for the rest of the season and why I’m hoping we’re going to be pretty competitive.”

Regardless if it continues and makes the Phillies as competitive as Mackanin envisions, it's surely an upgrade from the days of Kevin Correia, Sean O'Sullivan and Co.

Other odds and ends before the home opener

      • Carlos Ruiz will not start behind the plate, although Mackanin said he might do so for sentimental reasons. This is likely the final home opener for both Ruiz and Ryan Howard, who are each in their final guaranteed year of their contracts. Mackanin said he wanted to keep catcher Cameron Rupp paired with Nola and he also wants to keep the 37-year-old Ruiz healthy in his back-up role to Rupp.

     • Darin Ruf is beginning his re-introduction to the outfield this week, taking fly balls during batting practice. But he’s not going to be transitioned into a regular player out there, but, instead, another option for Mackanin as he writes out his daily lineup card. “If the point comes where I feel we need more offense, that option is going to be available to me,” Mackanin said. “In the back of my mind, I have to be concerned with adding offense to the lineup. … It’s not going to hurt him working out out there.”

   • Ruf is not in the starting lineup today; Ryan Howard is at first base. Again, this is Howard's final season in a Phillies uniform. Maybe it's time to stop booing and begin appreciating his historic Phillies career.

   • Your first lineup card from Citizens Bank Park in 2016: 

     • Phillies chairman David Montgomery spoke this morning on the passing of a friend, Flyers founder and Philadelphia sports legend Ed Snider: