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March 21, 2016

Nola on track ... for either Opening Day or home opener

LAKELAND, Fla. – As long as his sophomore season and career progress as many expect, no one is going to remember Aaron Nola entered the last full week of Spring Training 2016 with a 7.71 ERA just like almost no one on the planet cares that Felix Hernandez and Madison Bumgarner are sporting 5.68 and 10.57 ERAs, respectively, out in the Cactus League this spring.

Not that Nola is either of those pitchers. But spring statistics are rarely indicative of summer success, particularly for pitchers (Cole Hamels was a notorious slow starter in Grapefruit League play).

With all of that said, it was surely a comforting feeling for Pete Mackanin and Co. to see Nola, regarded as the most important young piece on the pitching staff, looking a lot more like himself against a stacked Detroit Tigers lineup on Monday at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Nola reeled off his best start of the month, holding Detroit to one run on two hits in six sparkling innings of the Phillies 4-3 win. Nola retired the final 10 batters he faced – finishing off against Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez – and needed just 65 pitches in his most efficient game of the spring.

“He was sharp,” Mackanin said. “He struggled that one outing (four runs in two innings in his spring debut on March 5) but we know what he can do.”

What Nola did especially well Monday: mix his pitches up and induce early, ground ball outs. He made Ian Kinsler look particularly bad on a strikeout by working in all three pitches – changeup, fastball, curve – on the first out of the third inning.

Improving the changeup was a point of emphasis for Nola this offseason.

“I think I’ve made a lot of strides with it,” he said.

And Nola needed a little more than 10 pitches per inning – coming under his scheduled pitch count in six innings – because nine of the 22 hitters he faced produced ground ball outs.

“It saves my pitch count (and) keeps the infielders on their toes,” he said, “which is good for the game itself.”

Nola likely has two more exhibition starts remaining before the regular season gets underway in two weeks. If the Phillies keep their current scheduling, he would follow veteran Jeremy Hellickson, missing out on the Opening Day assignment but having his second start arrive on April 11, the home opener at Citizens Bank Park.

Mackanin said he’ll likely decide on the Opening Day starter in the next couple of days, but isn’t putting too much stock in it in determining who his imaginary No.1 starter is on a rebuilding roster.

“We don’t want to call anybody our No.1 at this point until they pitch (this season), and then when we want to put a number on them we’ll have a better idea,” Mackanin said. “We don’t have a (Clayton) Kershaw or (Zach) Greinke-type guy. One of them may develop into that kind of pitcher. But we’ll know something by tomorrow or the next day.”