How Aaron Nola and Phillies honed their focus for October and slide-stepped past Marlins to Braves

PHILADELPHIA — Rob Thomson was upset. It was late September and the Phillies had conceded six stolen bases in two days. This, the manager told his coaches with about 10 days to go in the season, would hurt them in October. It had to improve. The staff discussed different tactics to deploy. A theme emerged.

“We had to draw more attention to it,” Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson said as he lit a cigar Wednesday night to celebrate a sweep of the Marlins in the Wild Card Series. “I really believe in that. I know Thoms does too. If you make something important to the guys, they will make it important.”

So, on the day before the postseason began, the Phillies did something unusual before batting practice. They had the entire team on the field for a 20-minute session on pickoffs. There were drills and conversations. At one point, shortstop Trea Turner took control and addressed the pitchers.

Make it important.

The Phillies entered October as a dangerous team because they had been here before and, now, they returned with a better roster. They know what it looks like. What it feels like. The tiniest details matter in October.

Aaron Nola is always thinking about the runners on base. He obsesses over it. Before Major League Baseball introduced the pitch clock and forever altered the art of stealing bases and holding runners, Nola liked to throw over to first base. A lot. He cannot do that anymore. And, during a disappointing 2023 season, the game often became too fast for Nola. He could not control it.

Jon Berti doubled with one out in the third inning of a scoreless Game 2 on Wednesday. He was Miami’s first base runner of the night. An eventual 7-1 Phillies win still hung in the balance.

Before every pitch Nola threw to Jacob Stallings, he peeked back. Berti stole a major-league-leading 41 bags last year, and another 16 this year. He’s stolen bases against Nola before. Stallings worked a full count.

Nola saw Berti expand his lead. He looked again and saw Berti jump.

“I kind of had that feeling in my mind that he was going to go right there,” Nola said. “So, it worked out perfectly.”

The call did not come from the dugout. Nola attempted one of the oldest tricks in the book — the inside move — and he caught Berti in the act. But it’s the way Nola did it. He sold it. He raised his left leg like it was his normal motion, then snapped back. He led third baseman Alec Bohm with a simple toss.

“That’s just Nola being Nola,” Bohm said. “Slow heartbeat. Really calm in the moment. He just knows what to do.”

Berti was out at third. Stallings tapped the next pitch to Bohm for the third out of the inning. In the bottom of the fourth, the Phillies scored two runs. It was over.

“That,” Taijuan Walker said, “just shifted the whole game for us.”

The Phillies pose for a team photo after advancing to the NLDS for the second year in a row. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

The Phillies partied inside the clubhouse again Wednesday night and, by now, it feels familiar. There were different wrinkles; many of the players, crowded by a glut of support staff and media occupying their room, retreated to the field so they could see their families. There was a keg and demands for keg stands, although it was unclear if any ever materialized. They will travel Thursday afternoon to Atlanta and, on Saturday, the matchup everyone in baseball wanted to see again is back.

“I say it every series we go into,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “I say, ‘Don’t give the Phils a reason to party.’ We like to celebrate together and that’s part of the reason we play so well on the field. This group has jelled well. We have a lot of fun.”

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The Phillies let it all hang out after disposing of the Marlins. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Their two games against the inferior Marlins were a masterclass in October baseball. It all traces back to Zack Wheeler and Nola. They were always steady this week. These three-game Wild Card Series are haunting to the favorites because all it takes is something weird to sway the outcome. It might be the hardest round. The Braves are daunting, but at least there is room to breathe in a five-game Division Series.

The Phillies left no inch for the Cardinals in a two-game sweep last October. They did it again. They walked one Marlins batter in 18 innings. They did more of the little things.

“Wheeler and Nola,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “Those guys are going to haunt my dreams. Last year they kicked us out in St. Louis, and this year they kicked us out here in Miami. They were the common denominator.”

Nola has pitched in four clinching games since last year — both regular-season clinchers and two Wild Card Series clinchers — and he has allowed one run in 27 innings. That is a 0.33 ERA.

The Phillies trust Nola, but they’re not totally sure about it. The first call to the bullpen came before Nola’s 59th pitch. It was the fifth inning. Gregory Soto started to throw in the pen. Then, Nola induced an inning-ending double play.

In the sixth, even before Nola plunked Berti to begin the inning, José Alvarado started to warm up. Nola had Berti on his mind again. Now, with him on first base, Nola used a slide step as he pitched to Stallings this time. He wanted to keep Berti on first. He had not used the slide step for six years. Then, in September, he tried to make it important.

Berti didn’t move. Stallings hit into a 6-4-3 double play.

Jorge Soler started the seventh with a single. Jeff Hoffman started to throw in the bullpen this time. Nola needed only 13 pitches to escape without damage.

“I feel so proud of him because he went through a lot this year,” Thomson said. “He struggled at times and there were the home runs and the big innings and things like that, but he just kept grinding and he kept fighting. Finally, he found some stuff at the end of the year, and he’s been lights out.”

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Aaron Nola will next pitch in Game 3 of the NLDS, back at Citizens Bank Park. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Dickerson lit his cigar in the hallway outside the clubhouse. Dusty Wathan, the Phillies’ third-base coach, joined him. Dickerson mentioned an “old-timey saying” that isn’t supposed to have a place in the modern game. If you make a bad out on the bases, the opposing team usually scores in the next inning.

“How true is that?” Dickerson said. “I don’t know. But, look, I believe it.”

Dickerson is always talking about the “free 90 feet” that teams cannot allow. His players sound like him now. “Every 90 feet is so important in October, especially,” Bohm said. “Who knows what happens there? To be able to cut that run down, we get out of the inning, and then we go score two runs. It’s just playing the game.”

This galvanizes the Phillies in October. Kyle Schwarber talks about the postseason being the purest form of baseball. No stats. No personal achievements. Baseball, as a team. Play relaxed. Embrace the moment. Savor it all.

During the season, Nola looked like someone bogged down by it all. He was not that pitcher in Game 2.

“Playing the game now,” Wathan said.

“Playing the game,” Dickerson said.

“That’s playing the game,” Wathan said.

“That’s what it is,” Dickerson said. “That’s an old-school view of the game. The game is living and breathing. It’s not just reproduce a pitch, reproduce a swing. It’s living and breathing. You watched Nola play the game today. He pitched the game.”

This is why the Phillies are here. This is why the Phillies are dangerous in October. They will be underdogs to the Braves and this is why no one will be surprised if they again topple the team with the best odds to win it all.

“We’re a good team too,” Nola said, and the proof was everywhere for two charmed days at Citizens Bank Park.



Grand slam shows Bryson Stott’s willingness to evolve: ‘I’m so proud of him’

(Top photo: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

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