Aaron Nola flirts with no-hitter, puts Phillies alone in NL East first place for first time since 2011

Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola throws the baseball in the third-inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday, May 26, 2018 in Philadelphia.

Cesar Hernandez made his major-league debut for the Phillies on May 29, 2013. Almost five years to the day, after playing in 559 games, he fell asleep Saturday night for the first time in his career as a member of a team that had sole possession of first place.

Yes, it is early. Barely 30 percent of the season has been played. But try telling Hernandez, the longest-tenured player on the losingest team in baseball over the past half-decade, that it’s too soon to derive meaning from the standings. Good luck with that.

“It means a lot, because this team has gone through a lot,” Hernandez said through a translator while sitting at his locker as strobe lights flashed and club music thumped — residue of another party after another Phillies win, 2-1 over the Toronto Blue Jays, on a pinch-hit homer by Nick Williams in the eighth inning. “Just to know that things are actually clicking for us, and we’re on a really good page right now, it’s satisfying.”

The last time the Phillies were alone atop the National League East? Try the end of the 2011 season, when they won 102 games and a fifth straight division title. In the ensuing six years, they lost 81, 89, 89, 99, 91, and 96 games, never finishing better than third place. They have spent four days tied for the division lead, but never this late in a season and never by their lonesome.

Starting pitching has put them there. Phillies starters have combined for a 3.33 ERA, the fourth-best mark in the league. It was perfectly fitting, then, that it was ace Aaron Nola’s brilliance that helped vault the Phils over the Atlanta Braves, who lost earlier in the day in Boston, and into first place by a half-game, with a 29-20 record.

Nola outlasted two rain delays, weathered a rising pitch count, and fought off the heart of the Blue Jays’ batting order three times, all without allowing a hit until there were two outs in the seventh inning. Between Josh Donaldson’s first-inning walk and Justin Smoak’s one-out walk in the seventh, Nola retired 18 batters in a row, nine by strikeout. He racked up 10 strikeouts, the fourth time in his career that he reached double digits.

“He was special today,” manager Gabe Kapler said.

Nola still hadn’t given up a hit when Kapler went to the mound with two outs in the seventh inning. Nola had walked two of the previous three batters; his pitch count had reached 107.

Kapler wouldn’t consider taking Nola out, would he?

“I said, ‘You look sharp, and you look strong,’ And he did,” Kapler said. “His eyes were bright, and they told me that he wanted that inning, and he wanted that hitter, and he was physically capable.”

Six pitches later, Nola gave up a hit and the lead. Russell Martin punched an RBI single through the left side of the infield to erase the 1-0 Phillies lead built on Maikel Franco’s homer in the fifth inning.

But rookie relief ace Serathony Dominguez kept the game tied before Williams put the Phillies ahead with his third pinch homer of the season. And Luis Garcia, who debuted for the Phillies only a few months after Hernandez in 2013, shut the door with a scoreless ninth inning.

And, after seven long years, first place finally belonged to the Phillies again.

“I think it means a lot to the clubhouse,” Kapler said. “Don’t let anyone tell you they aren’t paying attention to the standings in May. I don’t think that’s true of any baseball man that I’ve been around. You pay attention, you care, and it means something.”

Especially to the longest suffering Phillies.

“It’s been a lot of losing seasons. We’ve lost a lot of games,” Hernandez said. “To know that we have the talent to compete now and to have the same common goal, which is to win not only today but win many games, it’s a great feeling. I’m going to wake up very happy tomorrow knowing that we’re in first place and we’re competing to stay there.”