MIAMI — The Marlins already scored twice against Aaron Nola on Saturday afternoon and had runners on the corners when a message came through the Phillies bullpen phone for Mark Leiter Jr. to began throwing.
It was just the first inning and Nola’s final start before he represents the Phillies in the All-Star Game seemed to be headed off the rails. But as Leiter warmed up, Nola offered a reminder of how he emerged this season to be one of baseball’s elite arms.
The pitcher escaped the first inning of an eventual 2-0 loss to deliver six solid innings that were wasted by an offense that once again lacked firepower. Nola did not allow a run after the two he allowed in the first and gave up just one hit after allowing three to the first six batters. He overcame his rough start to end his first half with another impressive start and Leiter would be used in the seventh instead of the second.
“I just tried to get ahead, put my head down and keep pitching,” Nola said.
His recovery was not enough to wake up the lineup as the two runs he allowed in the first inning equaled the amount the Phillies scored in their previous 21. The Phillies had eight hits, just one of which was for extra bases, and left nine runners on base.
Rhys Hoskins smoked a ball to right-center field in the fifth inning that would have scored a run if Cameron Maybin had not chased it down and made an excellent catch. Cesar Hernandez started the eighth with a single before Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, and Carlos Santana went down. The Phillies could not build a rally.
It was their second shutout in four games and the Phils have scored just 24 runs in the nine games since their 17-run outburst against the Pirates. They have the fourth-worst slugging percentage in the National League and a lineup that was expected to be much more threatening than last season has failed to produce. Gabe Kapler said he still has “a lot of confidence.”
“We have pop. We have strength. Our guys have hit for power in the past,” Kapler said. “Rhys definitely has another stretch of power coming. Odubel has another stretch of power coming. Carlos has another stretch of power coming. Sometimes, these things ebb and flow. But these guys have produced power in the past. So we expect that there’s going to be more power coming.”
Nola finished his first half with a 12-3 record and a 2.30 ERA. He’s been excellent, but his only flaw has been the one that troubled him Saturday. The two runs he allowed increased his first-inning ERA to 5.40, by far his worst of any inning. Nola said his curveball was hanging in Saturday’s first inning and he needs to find a way to get settled in quicker. The Marlins didn’t pounce him, instead just slapping singles that sneaked through.
“I think it’s probably more chance,” Kapler said of Nola’s first-inning troubles. “However, it’s like you have to search for something. I don’t think there’s anything to it. It feels like you can’t point to anything else that Nola has done that isn’t fantastic. So it feels like that’s kind of a thing. But I don’t make anything of it. Our confidence levels are obviously off the chart from the first pitch of the game with Nola to the last pitch of the game.”
The Phillies, even with the loss, will enter the all-star break in first place for the first time since 2011. The lineup will have four days off, perhaps a long enough rest to produce the way the manager expects. And while they rest, they will remain in first place.
“I think we all believed it as a team but I don’t think anyone else believed that we’d be up there. I don’t think they would’ve thought that us and the Braves would be at the top,” Nola said. “We brought the veteran guys in at spring training and they’ve been on winning teams. They’ve been in the postseason. So we’re following their lead and we all believed that we could be here.”