ARLINGTON, Texas — It began Thursday where it ended four months ago, give or take about 250 miles. Same state, though. Against a team from the American League West, too.
And the outcome?
Let’s be clear: On a scale of mildly disappointing to utterly soul-crushing, the Phillies’ 11-7 collapse to the Rangers on the 141st opening day in franchise history barely registered as a blip. Sure, it may linger for a bit, especially with a day off Friday. But before long, it will blend in with the 161 games that are about to follow.
» READ MORE: Cristian Pache’s defense made him worth a flier for Phillies, who think they can help him as a hitter
The flashbacks were brought on as much by how it happened as where. After former President George W. Bush delivered the ball for a ceremonial first pitch to the mound, where Nolan Ryan was standing, and a sellout crowd of 38,387 rose and sang “Texas, Our Texas,” the Phillies jumped to a 5-0 lead, spoiling the Rangers debut of indomitable ace Jacob deGrom.
And then their own top-of-the-rotation starter blew it.
Aaron Nola, the clock perhaps ticking on his time with the Phillies, continued to struggle with adapting to the new pitch clock. He mowed through the Rangers’ order for three innings before they scored nine — count ‘em, nine — runs in the fourth, five off Nola.
If it felt familiar, it may have been because the Phillies’ last trip to Texas, 145 days earlier in Houston, culminated with a vanquishing in a World Series that they led after the third game. But they were outscored 12-3 by the Astros in the last three contests, 4-1 in the decisive Game 6.
It was the ultimate fall-from-ahead loss.
This defeat highlighted a potential issue for Nola, who talked candidly all spring about the difficulty in adapting to throwing a pitch within 15 seconds with the bases empty and especially within 20 seconds with runners on.
”A lot of pitches, got behind guys, got [Corey] Seager on base to lead off the inning, which kind of hurt,” Nola said, recapping the nightmarish inning. “Left some balls over the plate. The changeup was up a little bit. I’ll have to go back and watch it. They hit a couple good pitches, but the one to [Robbie] Grossman was middle-up.”
The fourth inning was especially troubling because Nola didn’t allow so much as a hit through the first three. But everything seemed to change once Seager punched a leadoff single to left field.
Nola always has been one of the slower-working Phillies pitchers. He also tended to be even more deliberate out of the stretch. Last season, he held hitters to a .199/.237/.306 slash line out of the windup with the bases empty compared to .259/.294/.426 out of the stretch with runners on.
Did Nola start to rush once Seager reached base and Adolis Garcia went down to golf a dirt-diving curveball to left field for a one-out single?
“I don’t know if it hurt him, but it probably didn’t help,” said pitching coach Caleb Cotham. “Those are the times forever when you’re always told to legitimately slow the game down. You take your time. That kind of inning, next time, he’ll have more strategies. That’s the first time he’s really, really felt that.”
Cotham tried to slow things down for Nola by coming out to the mound after Garcia’s single. But Nola walked Josh Jung and gave up a line-drive double to Jonah Heim. Grossman followed with a three-run homer to right field.
“You try to bear down a little more [with runners on], right?” Nola said. “That’s when you really have to make good pitches. I didn’t do that today.”
» READ MORE: Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins undergoes ACL surgery, recovery expected to be 7-9 months
Nola has come to occupy a certain stature within the organization. Drafted in the first round in 2014, he’s the longest-tenured player on the active roster. He also was making his sixth consecutive opening-day start, the third-largest streak in club history behind Robin Roberts (12 in a row) and Steve Carlton (10), both Hall of Famers.
It’s rarified air. And Nola hoped to sign a contract extension with the Phillies but was unable to reach an agreement before the sides agreed to table talks last weekend. Now, he may be headed for free agency at season’s end.
At present, though, Nola’s biggest concern will be finding a better rhythm with the pitch clock ticking. Like most pitchers, he was always taught to step off the mound whenever the game started to speed up. Under the new rules, pitchers are allowed to step off the rubber only twice per at-bat.
“It’s knowing how many disengagements, what do I do to slow this down, how can I build in using our visits appropriately, and things within the rules that we can do,” Cotham said. “It’s a learning point.”
Surely, the Phillies figure they can put a “W” next to games when they have a five-run lead and one of their aces on the mound.
» READ MORE: After getting a taste of the World Series, the Phillies are ready to go back: ‘It’s kind of addicting’
The Phillies notched six extra-base hits in 3⅔ innings against deGrom, who had never allowed more than five in 209 previous major league starts. They blitzed their former nemesis with the Mets. Alec Bohm blasted a two-run homer on an elevated 99 mph fastball in the second inning. In the third, $300 million shortstop Trea Turner punctuated his hotly anticipated Phillies debut by following Brandon Marsh’s leadoff triple with a triple of his own.
But after Nola coughed up the lead, the Rangers went ahead, 6-5, on Nathaniel Lowe’s 35-foot squibber up the third-base line against reliever Gregory Soto and kept right on going.
An auspicious start, a disappointing finish.
Too familiar in Texas for the Phillies.
Nick Castellanos, who made the final out of the World Series, even struck out on a full-count pitch with two runners aboard against Rangers closer Jose Leclerc to cap opening day.
Another reminder of how things left off.