Phillies win, but Nola struggles again

Phillies Braves Baseball
Aaron Nola delivers a first-inning pitch against Atlanta on Thursday, July 28, 2016.

ATLANTA - Six minutes after the first pitch between two rebuilding teams at a soon-to-be-extinct stadium, the Phillies had sent four batters to the plate. All four had scored. This eventual 7-5 win by the Phillies on Thursday night was swiftly captured, but it did not reduce concern over another erratic start by Aaron Nola.

Handed a five-run lead before he ever threw a pitch against one of the worst lineups in baseball, Nola slogged through five unspectacular innings. He still earned the win, his first since June 5, back when the pitcher owned a 2.65 ERA and no worries whatsoever.

Things have changed.

"He's not the same guy," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "He's just struggling with command once again."

This season, Phillies officials stress again and again, is about the development of their young starters. They want the pitchers to experience the highs and lows of the grind that is a major-league season. Nola has not yet solved the first significant adversity of his baseball life. He is less of a stalwart than he was just seven weeks ago.

At least the 23-year-old pitcher could say he won. The Phillies had lost the previous seven games started by Nola. This time, they ambushed righthander Matt Wisler. Cesar Hernandez drew a six-pitch walk. Odubel Herrera lashed a fastball to right for a single. Maikel Franco destroyed a hanging slider for a three-run homer. Tommy Joseph followed with a solo shot to center on a high fastball.

Joseph, who did not play in the majors until May 13, is tied for second on the team in homers. Franco is the leader, and the two have formed a formidable power tandem in the middle of the lineup. With his 19th homer, Franco is on pace for 29 this season.

Add Aaron Altherr to the mix, and the threat is even more substantial. Altherr, in his first game back since wrist surgery in March, crushed a two-run homer in the fifth inning.

"That's what you kind of like to have," Mackanin said. "When 3-4-5 come up, you hope the other team gets nervous."

The standard caveats for games against Atlanta, bound for more than 100 losses, applied. The Braves were not at their sharpest - the team did not land in Atlanta until around 4 a.m. after a night game in Minneapolis to conclude a 10-day road trip. Wisler dug an immediate hole. He needed 27 pitches to record one out. The Braves demoted him to the minors after he allowed seven runs in five innings.

Nola had his own problems. He left lots of 89-mph fastballs over the plate. A better team may have hit them far. Maybe not.

In three of his five innings, Nola retired the first two batters. But he never threw a clean frame. The innings lingered. It took a toll on Nola's pitch count; he needed 70 pitches for four scoreless innings. He described his start as "fairly OK, until the fifth inning."

"I ran into some jams there," Nola said. "I left some balls over the plate for them to hit."

Herrera provided no help in the fifth. He lost a routine fly ball in the lights, so Chase d'Arnaud stood on third with a cheap triple to start the inning. Freddie Freeman doubled to center. Nick Markakis and Adonis Garcia found holes for back-to-back singles.

His final line reflected the lack of command: Nola walked three and hit a batter. His ERA, through 20 starts, is 4.78.

"It was good to see he got a win," Mackanin said. "I'm happy for that. That should help him."

With every lackluster start, however, it is harder to remember the automatic Nola - the one who appeared to grasp major-league life with such ease at the onset of his career. Instead, the chase for consistent work deepens.