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March 28, 2017

Is it time to get concerned again about Aaron Nola?

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Exactly six weeks ago from Tuesday night, Phillies camp opened at the Carpenter Complex and people wondered whether Aaron Nola, confident his elbow woes from last summer were no longer an issue, would make it to April.

It was a fair concern. Nola hadn’t pitch in a game since July 28 and never underwent any kind of surgical procedure.

But then the former first-round pick was able to put a checkmark next to all of the routine spring progressions with the rest of the pitchers in camp. He threw side sessions. He pitched to hitters.

And when his first game arrived on March 2, Nola hit 94-MPH on the radar gun and looked superb in a two-inning outing against the Toronto Blue Jays.

In two weeks and two days, he was able to turn his narrative around. Aaron Nola, the former LSU standout who went 11-6 with a 3.12 ERA and a 4.5 K-BB ratio in his first 25 major league starts, was back.

His next start wasn’t as good, but he maintained he was feeling strong and healthy. The next three starts were a mixed bag of results, with strong strikeout and walk numbers, for the most part, but 11 earned runs in 13 2/3 innings.

Still, everyone kept saying all of the right things. And Nola looked almost annoyed any time the word “elbow” came up in postgame meetings with the press corps.

Nola’s final start of the exhibition season, under the lights at Spectrum Field in Clearwater against the same Blue Jays team he faced to begin the month, brought his spring full circle. It’s difficult not to be even a little bit concerned when you digest the numbers in total.

Aaron Nola's Grapefruit League numbers in 2017:

 0-38.38 1.81 19 1/3  2823/7 

Nola erased a leadoff double by striking out Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Kendrys Morales in succession in the first inning. But in the second inning, the Blue Jays batted around and Nola was bounced out of the game before recording a third out.

“Tough night,” Nola said. “For sure. I felt great. That's probably the best I've felt all spring. I did leave some balls up and some balls over the plate. They put some good swings on them.”

Nola’s line on Tuesday night: 1 2/3 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 2 HR.

"The one thing about Nola is that his velocity is way up so I think his arm is healthy," manager Pete Mackanin said. "But his command isn’t there. I thought there were some questionable calls that could have gone either way, which didn’t help him. But he hung a curveball and got a fastball up (on the two home runs)."

And his spring in total?

"He hasn’t shown the command that makes him a good pitcher," Mackanin said. "First and foremost, I think, if his arm his healthy. I think he’s going to get there. ... Nevertheless, he made some bad pitches (tonight) and that’s uncharacteristic of him when he’s pitching the way he’s capable of. The velocity, I kept looking up, and 92, 93, 94. That’s good to see. We’ll go from there."

Nola was asked about the disparity between the first and second innings but didn’t have an answer. He was asked about his poor spring training numbers.

Spring training numbers are usually overrated at best and meaningless at worst. But not for a young player, particularly one coming back from injury (and one who was struggling prior to the injury, too).

“People say it's spring training but nobody wants to go out there and give up runs, you know?” he said. “But I'm always going to try and go out there and give everything I've got and try to get the guys a win and try to limit the runs. I'm going to try and keep doing that going forward.”

But is he as confident as he was in January when he told the media his arm was at “100 percent” after a lengthy period of rest and rehab?

“I mean, I feel good,” Nola said. “The ball is coming out really good. I feel like my pitches are where I want them to be, but there's still some things I need to work on going into the season. Just keep getting out there more and more going forward.”

The next time Nola goes out, aside from throwing at the Carpenter Complex this weekend to bridge the gap between his first start of the regular season, it will be at Citizens Bank Park against the Washington Nationals in the first game of 2017 in South Philly.

After a spring when Nola managed to escape the chatter about his health and effectiveness, the bright lights will be shining down on Aaron Nola and the Phillies faithful in the ballpark will wonder if he can deliver a performance that will match his confidence, or whether it’s time to grow concerned once again.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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