Appreciating Aaron Nola: The Phillies’ durable righty is pitching his best when it matters most

PHILADELPHIA — It lasted only a heartbeat, a one-second sliver of a 199-minute symphony in South Philadelphia. For Aaron Nola, though, it was a gesture nine seasons in the making, a heartfelt reaction to a hard-earned salute.

“It felt like they turned up the notch a little bit, which was pretty awesome, pretty special, so I wanted to tip my cap and thank them,” Nola said Wednesday night, describing the gratitude rippling through Citizens Bank Park when he left the mound in the sixth inning of a 10-2 rout of the Atlanta Braves.

“That’s why they’re the best, man. From pitch one to the end of the game, they were standing up. It was fun. It was an amazing atmosphere.”

It happens every fall, apparently: In Game 3 of the National League Division Series, the Philadelphia Phillies trounce the Braves by eight runs with Nola on the mound. They did it last October and repeated the feat on Wednesday. Future performances are on hold because Nola is facing free agency.

He is savoring these moments while he can: a tip of the cap (his first ever, he said) in his final home start of the regular season and seven shutout innings here in the Wild Card round against Miami. Free agency looms, but Nola is blocking out its shadow.

“I haven’t even thought about that part of it yet,” he said. “Just trying to be as much in the moment tonight as I could.”

It could have been the last moment for Nola in Philadelphia. If the Phillies hold on to win this series, Nola would surely start one of the first two games of the NL Championship Series at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But if they don’t, this was a stylish send-off: 5 2/3 innings, two runs allowed, and nine strikeouts, a career high for the postseason and just one shy of a club record.

The Phillies pitchers with 10 strikeouts in a postseason game form a quartet of aces from distinct eras: Steve Carlton in 1980, Curt Schilling in 1993, Cliff Lee in 2009 (twice) and Zack Wheeler in Game 2 of this series. Nola just missed joining that group, which is fitting in its own way.

Nola, 30, broke out as a star in 2018, making the All-Star team and finishing third in the NL Cy Young Award race with a 17-6 record and a 2.37 ERA. Since then, his ERA is 3.97 — too high for a No. 1 starter, but too simplistic as a means of evaluation.

“Pick a stat the last three, four, five years,” pitching coach Caleb Cotham said after Game 3, “and it’s tough to not find him at the top of the list — especially innings pitched.”

Aaron Nola is expected to be one of the most coveted starting pitchers in free agency. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Nola’s future employer — in Philadelphia or elsewhere — would be thrilled if his next six years play out like his last six. Nola is the major-league leader in starts since 2018, with 175, and his 1,065 1/3 innings trail only the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole.

Even in a down year this season, with a 4.46 ERA and a career-high 32 homers allowed, Nola ranked among the NL’s top 10 in innings, WHIP and strikeouts. His durability, he said, comes with October in mind.

“We (the starters) need to put the innings on our back, especially during the season,” Nola said. “We have to keep the bullpen healthy, especially for the postseason, right? Because you never know what can happen in the postseason. Those guys need to be fresh, and they need to be throwing hard like they do and commanding the baseball. And in order for them to do that is to not pitch as much as they (would) if we don’t go deep in the game.”

Manager Rob Thomson may have pulled Nola a bit early in Game 3, with two outs and one on in the sixth. He had thrown 92 pitches, but there was also a strategic reason: bringing in the left-handed Matt Straham would force the Braves to replace the next hitter, lefty Eddie Rosario, with the right-handed Kevin Pillar. That, in turn, would create a better matchup in the later innings for one of the Phillies’ right-handed relievers.

As it turned out, when Pillar’s spot came up against Orion Kerkering in the eighth, the Braves replaced Pillar with a rookie left-handed hitter, Forrest Wall, who flied to left. In any case, the game was comfortably in hand by then because the Phillies’ hitters had pummeled the underbelly of the Braves’ pitching staff and Nola had done his part.

“He did such a good job for us tonight, going out there and keeping them off balance, throwing big pitches when he needed to,” said Bryce Harper, who homered twice. “They scored one early, and we came right back and (Nick Castellanos) hit the homer, and then myself as well. And it kind of snowballed from there.”

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Phillies fans give Aaron Nola a rousing ovation, and he salutes them in return. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Nola ended the first and third innings by striking out Marcell Ozuna with two runners on — first on a fastball, then on a curve. Both pitches were especially sharp in Game 3 as Nola thrived for the fourth start in a row; he’s allowed just five earned runs in 25 1/3 innings in that span.

“I would say the last four or five starts, he’s felt as good with his delivery — consistently, over a month span — since I’ve been with him,” said Cotham, the Phillies’ pitching coach for the last three seasons. “When his front foot is down and it’s in a good spot, he can throw the ball in any spot in the zone.”

Cotham added: “To me, his superpower is that he can be random inside the strike zone. It’s an even mix, and there’s no predictability to it when he’s going (well). Early, he’s kind of figuring out what’s working, and that allows him to play the game and read the hitters.”

Nola traced his recent improvement to a mechanical adjustment, squaring his shoulders and striding more directly toward the plate. That helps him command pitches to his glove side (inside to a lefty hitter, outside to a righty) and leave fewer pitches over the middle.

Cotham also encouraged Nola to use a slide-step delivery from the stretch, which helps him better control the running game and stay out of big innings.

“What he’s done with the slide step has been really cool; it gives not only the runner a harder chance to steal, it just gives the hitter a different look as well,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I’ve noticed in the last month when he started mixing that in, he was getting some weak contact, getting some swings-and-misses.

“His stuff plays, man, so when he adds that in and he feels good, he’s one of the best there is in the game.”

He’s not Carlton or Schilling or Lee or even Wheeler. But Nola is pitching his best when it matters most, and if Wednesday’s ovation was the last for him here, it should echo for a long time.

“It’s pretty cool to hear them chant your name, for sure,” Nola said. “I mean, it’s always kind of addicting to be out there — especially in the postseason here, and especially when we’re winning.”

(Top photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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