Opening day doesn't go Phillies' pitching staff's way

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Navigating the pitch timer will be a process for everyone who steps foot on a major-league mound in 2023, and though the players experienced it all throughout camp, a regular-season setting when the stress is high and the results actually matter is just different.

Aaron Nola cruised through the first three innings Thursday in Texas and went into the bottom of the fourth with a 5-0 lead. He had retired 9 of the first 10 hitters he faced in the Phillies' season opener.

The fourth inning began with a Corey Seager single up the middle in a 10-pitch at-bat. Nola spent the rest of it out of the stretch and could never quite get comfortable. The timer is 20 seconds between pitches with men on base and he had one eye on it as the Rangers stormed back.

"Yeah, a little bit, a little bit, something I've just got to get used to," Nola said. "Keep figuring out how to slow down. Gotta focus on the clock and the hitter at the same time. Just something to get used to. But ultimately, the ball was just leaking on me and hanging in that fourth inning."

Seager singled and advanced to second on a groundout by Nathaniel Lowe. Adolis Garcia singled in the Rangers' first run and Josh Jung walked before the two biggest swings of the inning: a Jonah Heim two-run double and a Robbie Grossman three-run homer. Heim's came on a low breaking ball that wasn't exactly a bad pitch but caught enough plate. Grossman's was on a 2-0 fastball that was 93 mph, over the middle and high in the zone, a definite mistake.

"I feel like my curveball was down but it wasn't sharp," Nola said. "They hung on a little bit longer, they could get to 'em a little bit better. But yeah, the stuff started leaking over the plate. Changeup was up a little bit. The one to Grossman was just middle-up."

Nola got Brad Miller to ground out and that was the end of his day. It was the first time in his career he was unable to hold onto a five-run lead. He allowed five runs over 3 2/3 innings and threw 72 pitches, 31 of them in the fourth inning.

He was relieved by left-hander Gregory Soto, making his Phillies debut after coming over from the Tigers this offseason in the trade that sent Matt Vierling and Nick Maton to Detroit. He went walk, single, walk, single and was lifted for Connor Brogdon. All four of the runs scored and were charged to Soto, who took the loss. He threw just eight of 19 pitches for strikes.

Soto is a hard-throwing reliever who closed games for the Tigers for most of 2021 and 2022. Prior to that, he was a setup man. He entered this game in the fourth inning, his earliest appearance since 2019. Soto, for what it's worth, has an 8.20 ERA in the first six innings of games and a 3.23 ERA in the seventh inning or later for his career.

With the Phillies, his role will be different and he knows that. The Phils have several back-end candidates to close in Seranthony Dominguez, Craig Kimbrel and Jose Alvarado. Soto will appear in different high-leverage spots, early or late.

"I think he's comfortable with it, should be anyway," manager Rob Thomson said of Soto's role. 

"Probably trying to do a little bit too much, it's opening night. Let's get all that stuff out of the way and get to Saturday."

Soto also dealt with some bad luck. Both hits were soft.

"Honestly, I felt a little unlucky today," he said. "That soft hit and the blooper were a couple of plays that could have gone in our favor but didn't."

He didn't blame his role, though.

"I've been getting mentally ready for moments like this," Soto said. "I feel confident that it won't happen again."

The Phillies are 0-1 and have actually lost 10 straight games to the Rangers dating back to opening day 2014. They'll have Zack Wheeler on the mound Saturday at 4:05 p.m.

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