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CLEARWATER, Fla. >> Aaron Nola was headed toward ace status until an elbow injury put everything on hold.

Nola is slated to be the fifth starter for the Philadelphia Phillies and expectations for the former first-round pick are much different now. Simply taking his turn on the mound every fifth day has become his primary goal.

“If you stay healthy, you can progress,” Nola said. “Right now, I’m healthy, and that’s what I’m worried about. Other than that, I feel really good.”

After starring at LSU, Nola was selected No. 7 overall in the 2014 amateur draft. He made his debut with the Phillies just 13 months later and dazzled for a couple months. Nola was 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA in 2015 and fans were hoping he’d become the next Roy Halladay.

But he struggled last year following a strong start. The tall, slender right-hander was 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA in his first 12 starts and 1-5 with a 9.82 ERA in his last eight starts before he was shut down in August.

Nola was diagnosed with a low-grade sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament and a low-grade strain of his flexor pronator tendon in his right elbow. The injury didn’t require Tommy John surgery, which would’ve forced him to miss a full year. He rehabbed his elbow and has been full-go this spring.

“I’m 100 percent. No hesitations about pitching,” Nola said. “I definitely look at the positives and try to build on those and learn from the negatives and continue learning from them. I think I found out who I am last year and I just try to move forward strong.”

Nola is an important part of the rebuilding process for the Phillies. He’s a key member in a deep starting staff that includes veterans Clay Buchholz and Jeremy Hellickson and promising youngsters Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez.

Several pitching prospects are waiting in the minors, including Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Alec Asher, Mark Appel, Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively.

“The key for (Nola) will be when we get into June, July and August, if he’s going to hold up,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “That’s the only concern I have. Not that I don’t think he will, but that’s the only thing in the back of my mind. I don’t foresee issues early.”

Nola has been so-so this spring. He has a 6.75 ERA in four appearances and had control problems in his last outing on Friday when he walked four. But results don’t matter when the games don’t count.

“I feel like I’m almost where I need to be going into the season,” Nola said. “A few more outings, and I think I’ll be good to go for the season. Keep on staying healthy, that’s my main focus right now.”

Mackanin liked what he saw on the radar gun.

“I’m just happy that he hit 92, 93 a few times, which is important to me,” Mackanin said. “The command comes next. That’s what spring training is all about. Once he gets to where he’s commanding his pitches, he’s going to be back to where he’s supposed to be.”

Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP—RobMaaddi

By Rob Maaddi, The Associated Press

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