Aaron Nola tinkered with his change-up during each of the past two seasons but never seemed to find comfort with it. He kept the change-up as his third pitch, opting to lean on the command of his fastball and his dancing curveball.
It was a fine plan. Both the fastball and curve were good enough for Nola to become one of baseball’s top young pitchers. But it was that third offering — a fully developed change-up — that could make Nola elite. And if Tuesday night’s 4-2 win over the Giants is evidence, Nola’s tinkering has seemed to pay off.
Nola struck out a career-high 12 batters in seven innings. He became the first Phillies starter since Cole Hamels in 2015 to pitch at least seven innings and earn the win in four straight starts. The righthander allowed just one run on five hits and no walks. He garnered a career-high 26 swinging strikes. Nola was brilliant. He lowered his ERA to 2.05 and has allowed just one run in his last 14 1/3 innings.
Nola threw the change-up on 22 percent of his pitches, but it was the pitch’s effectiveness that outweighed the usage. The Giants swung and missed at 10 of his 24 change-ups. The only two change-ups that went for hits were harmless singles.
“The past several games, I feel like it’s the best it’s been in my career, especially since I’ve been up here,” Nola said. “As a starter, it’s crucial to have three pitches. A lot of guys do. A change-up is one of the better pitches that a starter can have.”
He kept the pitch low and targeted it in the same spots where he lands his curveball, making it hard to pick up. And he threw it with confidence. He carved up a lineup of veteran hitters. Buster Posey in the first with consecutive change-ups. Brandon Crawford grounded out twice against change-ups. And Evan Longoria sliced one to left for an easy out. The Giants did not seem to have an answer for it.
“Here’s the thing,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s not a brand-new pitch. But the way he’s using it with such confidence … as confident in that pitch as his curveball, I think makes it a real separator. He can throw it in any count, to right[-handed hitters] or to left. It’s just a real good change of pace.”
The win guaranteed the Phillies at least a split with the Giants, who are in town for four games. The Phils have won three of their last four and remain a half-game behind Atlanta for first place in the National League East. Their pitchers — led by Nola — powered the Phillies through the season’s first month. And now their hitting might be coming around.
Aaron Altherr homered in the second and has 14 hits in his last 14 games with a .993 OPS over that span. Carlos Santana homered for the second consecutive night. Jorge Alfaro hit a mammoth 474-foot homer to left-center. Odubel Herrera singled in a run and reached base for the 37th straight game. The Phillies batted just .234 in April with a .375 slugging percentage. A breakout seemed almost guaranteed.
Nola’s fastball and curveball possessed their usual bite on Tuesday. The Giants whiffed at nine fastballs and six curveballs. He used the pitches for eight of his strikeouts; it was not just the change-up that the Giants failed to hit. But perhaps it was the change-up that made his already elite pitches even better.
Posey, perhaps the Giants hitter with the deepest track record, stepped in against Nola in the first inning. The catcher had two hits on Monday night and has a higher batting average against the Phillies than any player since 1913. This presented a challenge.
Nola threw Posey three fastballs to jump ahead 1-2. He then tried to get him to chase a change-up. No luck. Another change-up, another ball. The count was full. Nola went back with a third straight change-up and Posey swung through it for strike three. He stayed persistent with the change-up. The pitch — the one Nola seemed to tinker with for so long — was working and a masterful night was underway.
“What we saw tonight was a combination of what poise and stuff equals,” Kapler said. “It’s a calm, cool confidence plus three pitches that you can command and two that are really playing up in a special way right now in the curveball and change-up.”
Jerad Eickhoff pitched Tuesday morning in an extended spring-training game but manager Gabe Kapler declined to say that Eickhoff had a rotation spot when he returned from the disabled list. … Righthander Mark Leiter Jr. (flexor strain) will pitch Tuesday in a rehab assignment with high-A Clearwater. … Reliever Adam Morgan “feels better” a day after being placed on the disabled list with a lower-back strain, Kapler said. … Shortstop J.P. Crawford (pronator flexor strain) hit off a tee Tuesday. … Relief pitcher Victor Arano (shoulder strain) is “really close,” Kapler said.