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March 23, 2017

The Phillies break camp in eight days – what's the status of Aaron Nola's elbow?

CLEARWATER, Fla. – With St. Patrick’s Day long gone on the Spring Training schedule, there is little more for anyone to do than preparing to pack their respective bags to head north for the start of the regular season.

Pitchers have stretched out their arms in preparation for handling the bulk of the workload of each game come April. Hitters are no longer behind the pitchers, having accumulated enough at-bats to get their timing down and there swings in sync.

Grapefruit Leagues can become monotonous (at best) and a bore (at worst) in the latter part of March. But there has still been at least a little bit of drama every time Aaron Nola has taken the mound this spring, coming off a summer when he missed the final two months of the season with a right elbow sprain.

Pitching lines aside, everything has progressed about as well as anyone could have hoped for Nola when games began a month ago. Nola threw 82 pitches on Thursday, pitching into the sixth inning of the Phillies 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins and appears to be strong and healthy with Opening Day 10 days away.

“There are still some things I need to work on, tuning some things up with my pitches, but I’m definitely looking forward to spring training being over and getting the season started,” said Nola, who looks almost annoyed anytime the subject of his right elbow enters into a postgame rap session with the media.

And that’s somewhat understandable. There’s nothing a pro athlete (even the most genial ones) despises more than having to answer the same questions every day (or every five days for pitchers).

Then again, it was arguably the top storyline when camp opened six weeks ago. While the Phillies aren’t expected to contend in 2017, their chances of contending beyond this season improve markedly with a healthy and effective Aaron Nola in the rotation.

A month into exhibition games, Nola has made each of his scheduled starts, upping his pitch count each time, and looks eager to test his stuff in games that matter. Nola gave up four runs in his 5 2/3 innings on Thursday, but three of them came during an inning when Howie Kendrick and Freddy Galvis miscommunicated on a ball in shallow left and when Nola himself hung a changeup.

“Nola pitched extremely well,” Mackanin said. “He was working on his change-up. He threw more changeups than I've ever seen him throw. The changeup he threw for the home run, he admitted, 'I would never throw that pitch in a game.' But he's working on it, trying to get it going for him, which I think is going to be a good pitch for him.”

Nola made his fifth start of the spring exactly three weeks to the day of his first one, which was also his first game of any kind since July 28. It was on that afternoon – when Nola looked especially strong and sharp – that Mackanin sounded cautiously optimistic. Or perhaps just cautious.

"I’d feel totally comfortable if we get into June and there aren’t any issues," Mackanin said on March 2 in Dunedin. "To be honest with you, I don’t foresee any, but you never know. I don’t know if the workload will catch up to him or not, and if it doesn’t, then we have a heck of a good pitcher there. But it’s always going to be an issue. I’m always going to wonder if he comes in one day and says it’s bothering him. But right now I’m staying positive and hoping he has no issues.”

OK, Pete, with four additional games in the last three weeks, have your overriding concerns been alleviated, even a little bit?

“I'm less concerned right now,” Mackanin said Thursday. “It's always going to be in the back of my mind. But it's good to see 92, 93, 94 (miles-per-hour) coming out of his hand, which is important. Once he regains that command, and he showed real good command of his fastball down in the zone, he's going to be back to where he was – with even maybe a little more velocity. We'll see. But the changeup is going to help him. I'm very encouraged.”

Nola was asked a similar question.

“The elbow?” he said.

Yes, the elbow.

“Oh yeah, I mean I’m over that,” Nola said. “My elbow feels really good. I haven’t had any pain or problems with it, I don’t even think about it throwing or in games.”

The Phillies break camp in Clearwater a week from tomorrow, on Friday, March 31. Consider this spring a success, at least when it comes to the Aaron Nola storyline.

Perhaps the only offensive highlight from the Phillies on Thursday: Odubel Herrera hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning. (And had a midseason-form bat flip to complement his first home run of the spring, too).

Herrera went 2-for-3 on Thursday. Since returning from the World Baseball Classic, Herrera has gone 4-for-8 with a home run, a double, three runs scored, and four RBI.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21