CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jake Arrieta arrived at the ballpark Thursday morning, five hours before his first start of spring training. He had not pitched in a game since last October and the pitcher — who joined the Phillies last week on a $75 million, free-agent deal — struggled to contain himself.
"I had a ton of nervous energy today," Arrieta said. "I was very anxious to get out there. I was in here at 8 o'clock, and I couldn't stop moving around in the weight room. That's kind of how I am by nature."
The game finally began and Arrieta was reminded what it felt like, he said, to pitch with umpires and in front of crowds. He struck out the first two Detroit Tigers he faced before Miguel Cabrera lined a shot into the wind that carried for a homer.
His fastball reached 95 mph. He allowed two runs on three hits in the first two innings of a 6-2 loss. Manager Gabe Kapler said it was "a really, really positive outing." The Phillies were not looking for perfection, Kapler said, but just that the pitcher was healthy and strong. It was a first step for a pitcher who had not been in a game in five months.
"And it felt great," Arrieta said. "I'm healthy. The ball is coming out good. To get the first one out of the way, even though it is a little bit later, it's a good sign."
Arrieta threw 31 pitches, 22 for strikes. He will make one more start before the Phillies break camp next Tuesday. He remains confident that he will be ready for the start of the season but said it "might not be very likely" that he will start one of the team's first five games.
The Phillies have stressed caution. They did not spend $75 million for Arrieta to start an April game against the Braves. They are instead preparing him to pitch into September. They can navigate the first two weeks of the season with four starters before calling on Arrieta on April 11. If he starts that night, Aaron Nola's rotation turn would fall on the next game and the Phillies would have their top arms pitching back-to-back.
"They just continue to reiterate that longevity is obviously the most important versus trying to jump out there a little premature," Arrieta said. "Do I think I could handle going out there? Of course. But, again, is it the smartest thing to do? Maybe not. I'm on board with what these guys intend to do. I know they have my health and the team's success over the long haul in mind. That's the most important thing moving forward. We'll see what happens over the next couple of days. We'll probably have a better understanding of where we're going to go in three or four days."
There were concerns this winter about Arrieta's velocity, which dipped roughly 2 mph last season. The pitcher said after signing with the Phillies that he was not concerned. Every pitcher must learn to pitch with decreased velocity, Arrieta said. Or maybe, he said, his velocity would return.
His first start of spring provided some hope. His fastball sat around 93 mph and peaked at 95, according to the stadium's radar gun. Arrieta struck out his first batter, Jacob Jones, on three fastballs. He threw two fastballs to the next batter before flicking an inside curveball that Jeimer Candelario foolishly swung at and missed. The nerves were settled. And Arrieta, in his first start of spring, looked strong.