This weekend marks a special occasion for Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola and his family. He is scheduled to start Saturday’s game against the San Diego Padres, but more importantly, he is likely to face his older brother Austin Nola for the first time in the majors.
It’s been years since the two have formally faced each other. The two were teammates for one season at Louisiana State University, when Aaron was a freshman and Austin was a senior. Aaron threw against Austin in LSU intrasquads. Before that, Aaron was pulled from the freshman team at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to face Austin and his teammates on the varsity squad.
Both brothers were picked by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2011 MLB Draft, with Aaron going in the 22nd round out of high school and Austin in the 31st round. It made sense as Aaron always seemed to follow Austin everywhere, but Aaron opted to attend LSU and Austin went back for his senior season. Austin won the 2009 College World Series as the Tigers’ starting shortstop while Aaron became one of the greatest players in the program’s history, winning the SEC’s Pitcher of the Year Award in 2013 and 2014.
A year later, Austin was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the fifth round of the 2012 MLB draft and signed for $75,000. The Phillies selected Aaron with the No. 7 pick in the 2014 draft and signed for $3.3 million.
While the two brothers had similar paths to the big leagues, their careers went in opposite directions. Only 411 days separated the Phillies’ selection of Aaron and his MLB debut for the club. On the night of Aaron’s MLB debut, Austin wore Nola on the front and back of his uniform, batting seventh and starting at shortstop for the Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate New Orleans Zephyrs.
As Aaron dealt with sophomore struggles and a season-ending elbow injury in 2016, Austin wondered if he’d ever make it to the major leagues. Paul Phillips, the Zephyrs’ hitting coach at the time, gave him a suggestion that would save his career. Phillips told Austin, a natural shortstop, that he should learn to play the catcher’s position. He took up that suggestion and learned to catch in the Arizona Fall League following the regular season. In 2017, Austin began the season on the Marlins’ 40-man roster, playing in Double-A as the everyday catcher for the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
Austin was designated for assignment by the Marlins a year later and signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners following the 2018 season. While little brother Aaron established himself as a top-of-the-line starter for the Phillies, Austin was closing in on his opportunity. The Mariners selected Austin’s contract and he finally made his MLB debut on June 16, 2019.
In his first MLB season in 2019, Austin slashed .269/.342/.454 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs in 79 games for Seattle and played every position besides pitcher, shortstop and center field. Contending teams like the Padres kept an eye on Austin. He had fit the mold of a super utility man who was sound defensively behind the plate and capable of handling a leadership role.Embed from Getty Images
At the 2020 trade deadline, the Mariners sold high on Austin and traded him to San Diego along with relievers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla for Taylor Trammell and Ty France. He became the Padres’ everyday catcher and started six postseason game for the Friars.
Both Austin and Aaron have had up-and-down years in 2021. Aaron has had his fair share of brilliant outings, but he has struggled with fastball command all year. The 28-year-old has a 4.48 ERA this season, which isn’t an acceptable mark for a starter as capable of dominating as Aaron can.
Injuries have kept Austin off the field for a good chunk of this season. The 31-year-old missed most of April with a left middle finger fracture and suffered a knee sprain a month later that kept him out until the end of July. Since returning from the injured list, Austin is slashing .353/.393/.451. He’s batting fifth behind Jake Cronenworth in Friday’s series opener.
Unless Padres manager Jayce Tingler does the unthinkable and benches Austin on Saturday, Aaron should get two or three chances to get his older brother out. According to the Phillies, it will mark the first time a Phillies pitcher faced his brother in an at-bat since July 31, 1988, when Mike Maddux faced Cubs pitcher and younger brother Greg Maddux. The eventual Hall of Famer went 1-for-3 with a single against older brother Mike.
It could be the boost the Phillies’ struggling ace needs.
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