Aaron Nola dominates in Phillies' 3-1 win over New York Mets

Yoenis Cespedes glared at the pitcher’s mound, almost staring through Aaron Nola. Nola’s point was clear. Don’t get too comfortable.

Nola drew the ire of the Mets slugger Saturday night after buzzing him with a high-and-tight fastball in the sixth inning of a 3-1 Phillies win at Citizens Bank Park. Nola looked back at Cespedes and did not retreat, striking him out on the next pitch with a nasty change-up. Message delivered.

“I was aware,” Nola said when asked if he noticed Cespedes’ stare. “I didn’t want to let him beat me again.”

The righthander has added another layer  over the last eight weeks as he emerges as a dominant pitcher with ace potential. He struck out eight batters  Saturday night while allowing just one run on two hits with two walks. Most important, he showed no fear.

“I was happy to see him do that,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “I wish we saw more of that to keep those hitters honest so they don’t lean out or dive out over the plate.”

Nola has a 1.71 ERA in his last 10 starts. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first Phillies pitcher since 1893 — the year the mound was moved to its current distance — to allow two runs or fewer in 10 straight starts.

Nola lowered his season ERA to 3.02 and increased his strikeout-per-nine innings average to 9.4. He could join Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Curt Schilling as the only Phillies starters to finish a season with an ERA less than 3.15 and strikeout-per-nine average greater than 9.00.

The brilliant stretch began on June 22, two days after Nola watched St. Louis righthander Mike Leake mow down the Phillies. Nola was asked afterward if he noticed anything from Leake.

“He said, ‘Yeah, nothing was above the knee. He kept the ball down the entire game.’ It was a slap in the face for Nola,”  Mackanin said.

Nola tamed the Mets by doing just that. He pounded the bottom half of the strike zone, and more than half of his 103 pitches were at the batter’s knees or lower.

“You get taught to throw the ball down, and that’s what we try to do and what I try to do every time I go out,” Nola said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work too well like tonight. My fastball wasn’t down as much as it has been.”

He utilized his curveball for four of his eight strikeouts and threw 20 first-pitch fastballs, 14 of which were either first-pitch strikes or outs. His change-up, which Mackanin credited for the pitcher’s rise, was sharp.

“It’s a night-and-day difference,” Mackanin said. “It gives him an extra place to go when he gets into trouble. Instead of a fastball in and out and the curveball he’s always had, now he’s got that pitch. Let’s say on a given night he doesn’t have a good feel for his curve, he can go to his change-up even against righthanders and get outs. It’s always good to have that pitch that’s working for you.”

The Phillies did not get a hit until the fifth inning as it seemed that Nola’s night may have been wasted. Nick Williams and Maikel Franco started the fifth with back-to-back singles. Cesar Hernandez then singled in Williams, and Galvis brought home Franco. Nola had the runs he needed.

His lone mistake was a hanging curveball that Cespedes demolished for a solo homer in the fourth. The homer traveled 397 feet and seemed to hang above Citizens Bank Park for an eternity. It was Cespedes’ second straight game with a homer and his fifth of the season in South Philly. He has more homers this season in Philly then he does in New York. Perhaps Nola wanted to make sure he didn’t feel at home, hence the fastball he fired two innings later.

Cespedes had a chance for retribution in the eighth once Nola’s night was finished. Rookie righthander Ricardo Pinto worked an 0-2 count against Cespedes, who just missed on strike two and fouled it sharply behind him. Pinto gathered himself and pumped a 98-mph fastball past Cespedes for strike three, pumped his fist, and walked off the mound. Pinto, like Nola, showed no fear.