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PRESS PHOTO BY CHUCK HIXSONAaron Nola is expected to be one of the Philles’ top pitchers this season. PRESS PHOTO BY CHUCK HIXSONAaron Nola is expected to be one of the Philles’ top pitchers this season.
PRESS PHOTO BY CHUCK HIXSON Matt Klentak steps into his new role as IronPigs General Manager and hopes to have success in the Lehigh Valley. PRESS PHOTO BY CHUCK HIXSON Matt Klentak steps into his new role as IronPigs General Manager and hopes to have success in the Lehigh Valley.

Phillies, IronPigs hold annual winter banquet

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 by CHUCK HIXSON Special to the Press in Sports

The Phillies have made a point of acquiring young pitching in an effort to rebuild their failing ball club. That pitching, all of it young and promising, is going to be a key for the Phillies over the next couple of seasons as they look to climb back up through the National League East.

Even with all the trades, the best of the best is a home grown product. Aaron Nola, who was back in the Lehigh Valley Thursday night for the Phillies Winter Banquet, which benefits IronPigs charities, figures to lead the rotation after getting an audition last Summer with the big league club.

Like most young players, Nola faced a couple bumps during the season last season, most notably a start against the Washington Nationals on September 14 when he allowed six earned runs over five innings. The bad outing turned out to be a shining example of just how mature the 22-year old right-hander is when he held his head high and came out in his next start to throw seven innings of one-run ball against Atlanta. Then, in his final start of the season, got another shot at the Nationals and shut them out over five innings of work. The ability to bounce back is something that Nola credits his college career with having taught him to accomplish.

“I learned at LSU how to have a short memory,” he said. “You can’t dwell on one start, whether it’s great or horrible, because the next time can turn things around either way. You have to just have confidence in your stuff and go out the next time looking to do better.”

Nola is just one part of the Phillies young pitching that will comprise much of the staff. With spring training right around the corner though, the Phillies pitching staff has a lot of question marks, both in the starting rotation and in the closer’s role, which was vacated when Ken Giles was dealt to Houston during the offseason. For now, manager Pete Mackanin isn’t ready to name names when it comes to who will be pitching where.

“I won’t etch it in stone,” said Mackanin. “I won’t say anybody’s a lock, but I sure like what Nola did last year and I was really impressed with [Jerad] Eickhoff. Those two guys in particular made a real good impression, so under the circumstances, I would like to think that they’re going to be part of the rotation.”

The closer’s role is another open competition, but both Mackanin and new general manager Matt Klentak are certain that they can someone to shut down the opponent in the final inning.

“We’re pretty satisfied with the guys that we’ve got to audition for the job,” said Klentak. “We’ve got some veteran guys that we brought in who may have stumbled a little in their careers, but they’ve got the experience and the ability to bounce back.”

The IronPigs were home to pitchers Nola and Eickhoff and young players like Aaron Altherr, who was also on hand Thursday night for the annual banquet. They figure to be a source of more young players in the very near future as the team will likely have a number of key prospects on their roster at some point during the season, including the organization’s top prospect, shortstop J.P. Crawford. Altherr got extended playing time last season and figures to fit into the outfield plans for 2016, but he also knows that his place on the major league roster isn’t a guarantee.

“I just have to go out and work hard and focus on what I can do to make the team,” said Altherr. “We’ve got some good players on this club and I think we’re going to be better and that means there’s going to be competition for jobs. If you come in thinking you’re on the team, you’re taking the wrong approach and setting yourself up for failure and I’m definitely not doing that.”