"It was just a tremendous night," Combs, now a 48-year-old investment manager at Morgan Stanley in Texas, said by phone Monday. "It was a lot of fun."
That long-ago evening came into sharper focus with the announcement that right-hander Aaron Nola will make his first big league start Tuesday night against the Rays at Citizens Bank Park. In doing so, the Phillies' top selection out of LSU from last June will become the organization's first pitcher to graduate to the bigs the following season since Combs did it nearly 26 years ago.
Phillies fans have been clamoring to see Nola ever since he got off to a fast start at Double-A Reading this year. He becomes the latest hot Phillies pitching prospect whose arrival was highly anticipated by the paying customers, including Brett Myers in 2002 and Cole Hamels in 2006.
Since Myers and Hamels were drafted out of high school, it is Combs' experience most closely approximates what Nola will experience Tuesday night. If anything, his rise was even faster since he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team after signing and didn't make his pro debut until he started for Class A Clearwater the following April.
Asked what advice he would give Nola, Combs laughed.
"I think I would tell Aaron just to keep doing what he's doing and not try to change anything just because it's a big league start. The same pitches that got Double-A and Triple-A hitters out will get big league hitters out. And he's got great stuff. So I would just tell him to trust his stuff and try to keep his nerves in check and focus on each pitch and each hitter and not worry about the results," he said.
"I think that's always the key, but especially when you're making that first big league start, you go in thinking you've got to be better because you're at the Major League level. There's really no difference. The only difference is that the big league hitters will hit the mistakes more often. But great pitches get great hitters out, and that's what I think he has to keep in mind. Just continue to make good pitches and not worry about the results."
Obviously, whether Nola pitches well or not, it's just one start that will not determine what happens for the rest of his career. For what it's worth, though, the Phillies' No. 1s have tended to make a great first impression.
The first batter Combs faced, Pirates left fielder Albert Hall, reached second on a double error by shortstop Dickie Thon and first baseman Ricky Jordan. The second, shortstop Jay Bell, hit a grounder to the right side that rolled through to drive in the unearned run.
That was all the Pirates would get, though. Combs ended up pitching six innings, allowing three hits. He walked three and struck out four.
"All I could think about was trying to keep my thoughts right on the game and just do what I had done the previous four or five starts. I had such a great run at Triple-A [3-0, 0.37 in three starts for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after being promoted from Double-A Reading] that I just wanted to continue pitching the way I had. So I was very confident. But also very nervous, obviously, to get that first big league start."
Combs left with a 2-1 lead but settled for a no-decision when the Pirates tied the game against Jeff Parrett. The Phillies scored with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 walk-off win.
Myers was still only 21, but in his fourth pro season, when he made his first big league start against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on July 24, 2002. He was dominant that day, allowing just two hits and one earned run in eight innings.
Hamels, then 22, was also in his fourth pro season, but, due to injuries, had made a total of just 36 starts before he faced the Reds at Great American Ball Park on May 12, 2006. He pitched five shutout innings and allowed one hit while striking out seven; he also walked five.
Myers went on to have a productive 12-year career. Hamels has developed into one of the best starters in baseball. Combs went 4-0, 2.09 in six starts that September, but he soon came down with elbow and shoulder problems. He made his last Major League appearance in July 1992. He was 25 years old.
Still, he has nothing but good memories, especially of that first start.
"We ended up coming back to win. It was a quality start. It was a blast," he said.