CLEARWATER, Fla. - Philadelphia Phillies 2014 first-round draft pick Aaron Nola is known for mowing down hitters from the mound. But if the whole pitching thing doesn't work out, he may have another career in ping pong. That's right, when asked about other skills he may have, the 21 year-old right-hander named ping pong as his hidden talent.
"It used to get pretty competitive," said Nola about growing up playing table tennis with his older brother, Austin. "We had a table in our place at LSU and would play all the time." Austin is a shortstop in the Miami Marlins organization at Double-A Jacksonville. Both brothers attended Louisiana State University.
Baseball was the only sport Nola played in high school and college, but he was lucky enough to have Austin at the same schools. They faced each other in an intra-squad game in high school. How did it go? "It went pretty well," said Nola. "I got him to ground out." Then the brothers had the chance to play together during Austin's senior year at LSU.
When the Phillies made Nola the seventh overall pick in June's draft, it was for his abilities as a pitcher. And his stats against Southeastern Conference batters stand out. Over three years in Baton Rouge, La., Nola compiled a 30-6 record with a 2.09 ERA. The 6-foot-1-inch, 195-pound starter struck out 134 batters in 116.1 innings pitched during the 2014 campaign, holding opponents to a .172 average.
The list of awards and nominations Nola has racked up is just as impressive. He is the only two-time SEC Pitcher of the Year, was named a first-team All-American twice and was a 2014 finalist for the Golden Spikes Award - given annually to college baseball's best player. He was also named in June the Pitcher of the Year by the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.
"The awards really topped off college for me," said Nola. "It was a great experience being at LSU for three years." Nola has not graduated yet but plans on finishing his bachelor's degree in Sports Administration next chance he gets. The opportunity could be as early as this fall, depending on what his baseball schedule is like.
In the meantime, Nola is adjusting to life as a professional. Moving away from home - and Mom's cooking - has been just as big of a change as facing wooden instead of metal bats. "It was pretty hectic to start off with," said Nola. "From flying up to Philadelphia right after the draft and doing my physical work, to flying down here and getting things set up. It's been a big transition, for me it's all about routine."
Getting into a routine and establishing himself as a pro was important to Nola. "It was my decision to sign quickly," said Nola. "I think that's helped me a lot. It's what I really wanted to do. I'm a month into playing and some of the guys have just now signed. They're just starting. That's one thing I'm glad I did is sign early."
One of the interesting transitions Nola, and other college pitchers, have made is facing a different kind of bat. With the change to the material in metal bats to make them safer, the ball and bat contact may sound hard but the hit rarely is. At least not like how the ball jumps off a wood bat.
Talking about facing hitters in Advanced-A Nola elaborated on the challenges. "These guys are used to the wood bats," said Nola. "College bats, when they switched to the BB core, the balls hardly went anywhere, plus the seams were bigger. Balls just didn't travel far. Here the ball really jumps off the bat. If you hit it on the sweet spot on a wooden bat it will travel really far - especially in this humidity."
Nola was assigned to the Clearwater Threshers on June 23. In his first five starts with the club, he has struck out 18 batters in 21.1 innings pitched with a 3.80 ERA and .221 average against. The Threshers have been going with a six-man rotation, like Nola had in college, as they ease him into a professional workload.
The Threshers season is over at the end of August and there has been no indication yet of what, if any, off-season baseball plans may be in Nola's future. He wants to focus on what he can control and keep the big picture in mind. As far as personal goals go, Nola keeps it simple. "Just go out and get as many quality starts as I can," said Nola.
Talking about what he wants to do with his remaining starts this season, Nola said, "Just try to limit the damage that happens out there. Try to learn hitters better. That's what I what to work on the most - learn hitters better, learn their swings better. All aspects - get bigger, stronger, and smarter about the game. Just work on everything."
A bigger, stronger and smarter Aaron Nola is bad news for opposing hitters and great news for Phillies fans. Both on the mound and at the ping pong table, Nola is extremely competitive and often dominant. All signs indicate that his choice of baseball as a career path will be productive and successful and he won't need to fall back on the table tennis pro tour as a back-up plan.