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April 08, 2017

Something more meaningful than Phillies' record dozen first-inning runs?

How do you take the pressure off of a pitcher making his first start in nearly nine months, one with an uncertain status following a two-month bout with elbow woes, who sidestepped surgery (which only increased the concerns of many moving forward), who looked anything but like the best version of himself in a month’s worth of exhibition games in Florida in March?

You score a franchise-record 12 first-inning runs for him, that’s how.

Aaron Nola’s first start of the 2017 season – and his first appearance in a major league game since informing the coaching staff and trainers his elbow had been bothering him while pitching at Turner Field on July 28 – was nearly overshadowed by his teammates slamming a dozen runs in their first at-bat on Saturday night.

Cesar Hernandez doubled and Howie Kendrick singled and Odubel Herrera walked and Maikel Franco hit a sacrifice fly and Michael Saunders hit an RBI single and Tommy Joseph hit an RBI single and Cameron Rupp walked and Freddy Galvis hit a sacrifice fly and Aaron Nola walked and Cesar Hernandez walked and Howie Kendrick hit a three-run triple and Odubel Herrera legged out a RBI infield single and Maikel Franco hit an RBI double and Tommy Joseph hit an RBI single and Cameron Rupp struck out.

And breathe.

And maybe take a nap, too. Because after a first inning like that, you’re still a long, long way from wrapping up a 17-3 victory, which the Phillies did do Saturday to collect their first win since Opening Day.

The dozen runs the Phils scored, again, were the most ever in any first inning they’ve played in the 135 years of the franchise’s existence (they scored 10 three other times, most recently against Johnny Cueto and the Reds in 2009) and came one run shy of tying the franchise record for runs scored in any single inning.

And it was … something.

Jeremy Guthrie, taking the mound for the Nationals on his 38th birthday, would face 12 batters. Ten of them reached via hit or walk, and the other two had productive plate appearances with sacrifice flies.

Saunders, hitless in nine at-bats since doubling in his first at-bat as a Phillie five days earlier, broke out of a funk with two hits in the first inning and ended the night a home run shy of a cycle. Joseph, 0-for-the-season, also had two hits and two RBI in the first inning to bust out of his own mini-slump.

But, wait, seriously, back to one Aaron Michael Nola.

"The big story for me," Pete Mackanin said after running down the game's many offensive heroes, "was Nola."

No matter how many runs the Phillies scored in the first inning, nothing that was going to take place at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday was more important for the 2017 season and beyond than how Nola looked on Day One.

The hot and cold streaks of the men that make up the Phillies’ regular starting eight are expected through the course of a 162-game season, for any team. And while each of their individual progress as big league hitters is crucial, the Phils have a decent crop of understudies preparing for their own major league careers at Triple-A. The progress of the lineup at Lehigh Valley is paramount to the big picture of the Phillies’ rebuild.

Nola, on the other hand, is a former first-round pick with top-of-the-rotation talent who went 11-6 with a 3.12 ERA and a 4.5 K-BB ratio in his first 25 major league starts before coming undone in June and then landing on the disabled list in July.

Nola, who has insisted his right arm is healthy, needed to show more in April than he did in (meaningless games in) March. Nola needs to have a healthy, full, productive season to get back on his path toward being a fixture in the rotation for the next contending Phillies team.

Just as the bottom half of the first inning was just one of 18 frames in one of 162 baseball games, Saturday night was just the first of the starts Nola will make in 2017.

But, you know what? He was pretty darn good.

"I think he needed a good performance for his own confidence and I saw a lot of what we’re looking for from him," Mackanin said. "The first inning was a little iffy but the double play bailed him out of that jam, but overall he pitched well. I’m really happy about that."

The first inning, when Nola allowed an infield single and walk to begin the night, looked nothing like the five innings that followed. Perhaps the 12 runs in between the first and second innings helped?

Nola's body language seemed to change, he looked like a guy ready to air it all out and see what the Nats could do in response.

"After getting out of that first inning and we scored all of those runs, I told myself I had to lock it in right now, because, I mean, as a pitcher it’s pretty easy to kind of zone out right there, because you’ve got so many runs," Nola said. "I had to tell myself to lock it in. I felt like I did that for the most part."

After sitting in the dugout during that marathon bottom half of the first inning, Nola cooly walked back onto the mound and struck out the side on 10 pitches. He followed that up with another 1-2-3 frame in the third. Nola breezed through those two innings, looking a lot like the guy from those first 25 starts and not the one everyone was worried about when the Phillies broke camp eight days ago.

"A shutdown inning after you score a lot of runs is important for anybody," Mackanin said. "When he did that, I felt like he was going to coast like that the rest of the way. He certainly pitched a lot better than we’d seen him (in the spring). ... And he has better velocity than he had last year.  ... I’m really happy to see the increased velocity (but we) didn’t see the command (in the spring). We saw a lot better command today, and the command is the most important. Command is a pitcher’s best pitch." 

Nola’s final line was obviously much prettier than Jeremy Guthrie’s, but it also didn’t really do his start justice: 6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 7 K. Two of those three runs came in Nola’s sixth and final inning, an inning that began with him freezing Adam Eaton on a called third strike.

More important that any stat line was the 94-MPH rising fastball Nola tried to fool Jayson Werth with in the fourth inning. Nola’s average fastball in each of the last two seasons? Just a tick over 90-MPH.

More important than any stat line and arguably the velocity, too, was the movement Nola had on his pitches. They danced away from flailing bats and darted to the outer edges of the strike zone all night.

It was just one game, one of 30 or 33, Nola can only hope. But for the six innings he was on the mound during that game, Nola looked very good and that easier on the eyes of hopeful Phillies fans than the floodgates opening for the offense in the historic first inning.

Nola was asked if he took the mound for the first time in 2017 with something to prove, after how the 2016 season ended and how concerns carried over into an uncertain Spring Training.

"Yeah," Nola said, "I’m healthy. I know a lot of people are wondering, or have been wondering or are still wondering, but I’m healthy. And I feel great. I just want to stay healthy and maintain that for the remainder of the year."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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