MIAMI — It started last summer. Pitch by pitch, start by start, every five days or so, Aaron Nola began to resemble the honest-to-goodness ace the Phillies had lacked since they traded Cole Hamels midway through the 2015 season.
But on Wednesday night, Nola displayed another characteristic of all classic No. 1 starters.
He was a stopper.
Never mind that the Phillies had lost four games in a row, including two against the stripped-down Miami Marlins. Or that up and down the lineup — from Rhys Hoskins to Carlos Santana — they aren’t hitting. Or that rookie infielder Scott Kingery was out with a bruised and swollen right biceps after being hit by a pitch one night earlier.
The Phillies had Nola on the mound, which meant they had a chance. And sure enough, he dealt like a blackjack croupier in Atlantic City. Nola scattered four hits, retired 17 consecutive batters at one point, and put the Phillies on his back in a cathartic 6-0 victory that prevented what would have been an embarrassing sweep by the Marlins.
“That’s what you need from a guy at the top of your rotation, right?” Hoskins said. “Pretty dominant throughout the whole game. Not a whole lot of stress. He stopped the bleeding. Noles was Noles, and we needed it.”
Did they ever. And when Nola was through slowing the Marlins’ bats with an emerging change-up that, for a second straight start, proved to be his best pitch, the Phillies let loose. It had been four days since they busted out the laser lights and dance music that turns the typically staid clubhouse into a club, so they partied for a few minutes before taking a late-night flight to Washington, where they will open a three-game series Friday night against the Nationals.
“We’ve got a good young team, and a young team looks for opportunities to get fired up and have fun,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I think that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
Kapler spoke of the confidence that comes with having “our stud” the mound. And make no mistake, Nola is studly. He has allowed two runs or fewer in 21 of his last 25 starts and completed at least six innings in 20 of them dating to last June 22.
Think of Nola as a slightly shorter, righthanded version of Hamels. Through 67 career starts, Nola has allowed 167 earned runs in 402 1/3 innings for a 3.74 ERA. At the same stage of his career, Hamels had given up 170 runs in 428 2/3 innings for a 3.57 ERA. The last Phillies pitcher to retire at least 17 consecutive batters in the same game? Hamels, in his no-hitter on July 25, 2015.
Here’s the scary part: As good as Nola is, he appears to be getting better.
Against the Marlins, he lacked his best fastball command in the first inning and said he was “pulling my curveball” rather than locating with his usual precision. So, he turned to his change-up, typically his third-best pitch. It was particularly effective against righthanded batters, and it allowed Nola to revert to his signature curveball later in the game.
“Whenever the change-up is right there, he’s nasty like tonight,” catcher Jorge Alfaro said. “I mean, what are you going to look for when you’re hitting? Because he’s got a really good curveball and the change-up is there like that, and his fastball is untouchable. When he’s got those two [offspeed] pitches, it’s like, wow. It’s really fun to catch.”
It helped that Cesar Hernandez gave Nola a lead before he took the mound by taking Marlins starter Jose Urena deep for his fifth career leadoff homer. From there, though, it was all about Nola, who was on cruise control until his evening ended with Lewis Brinson’s single on his 101st pitch of the game with one out in the eighth inning.
It was all very ace-like. And by now, let there be no doubt that Nola has achieved that status.