Labels are laughable. Before Aaron Nola ever got to the big leagues he was pigeonholed as a No. 3 starter — at best. Dusty Wathan, Nola's minor-league manager back then and a Phillies coach now, always had the best response: "What's wrong with that?" Nothing was the obvious and correct answer, but that label always sold Nola short. It was born out of the fact that he does not blow people away with searing fastballs or have an imposing nickname like Thor.
Nola barely touched 95 miles per hour with his fastball Tuesday night, but the title of staff ace fit him fine during a 6-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds that pushed the Phillies to .500 (5-5) for the first time this season.
"I don't think it's fair to label a guy who has performed at the top of the league for a full season, as he did last year, as anything but a number one starter, as anything but an ace or anything but a horse," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "He's a guy you can depend on. He doesn't throw 98, but his command is as good as anybody's in the game and his curveball is as good as anybody's in the game."
What makes Nola qualified to be a staff ace is the same thing that got guys like Greg Maddux to the Hall of Fame. He throws strikes in waves and in places that are difficult to make solid contact. And, of course, he does have that curveball that embarrasses hitters before they head back to the bench as strikeout victims.
Tuesday was exactly the kind of game you wanted an ace on the mound. After winning three of the first four on this homestand, the Phillies had an opportunity to get to .500 following a rough opening stretch on the road in Atlanta and New York that left Kapler with some less than flattering labels of his own.
Beat the lowly Reds (2-8) for a second straight night and the Phillies were through their first 10-game stretch in a decent place. Things might not be nearly as bad as they initially appeared. Now things even look pretty good and the majority of the credit belonged to Nola, who lowered his ERA to 1.96 after three starts. That is pretty much in line with the 2.04 ERA he has posted in his last 12 starts at Citizens Bank Park. And if you need more evidence of Nola's status as an ace, there is this: Opponents are hitting just .161 against him this season.
"I was just going out there treating this like another game," Nola said. "I was just trying to do everything I could to get a team win and keep the game as close as possible."
That was necessary because Reds starter Homer Bailey did not give up a hit until the sixth inning. Nola, meanwhile, gave up just a single run in the fifth and he was not happy with the manner in which he surrendered it. With two outs, he walked Billy Hamilton on four pitches and he knows that's tantamount to giving up a double.
"You know that guy is going to steal," Nola said. "He's the fastest guy in the league."
After his second steal of the game, Hamilton scored on a Jesse Winker single, giving the Reds a 1-0 lead. Cincinnati would get no more and a couple of rookies – J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery — delivered for the Phillies in the late innings.
Crawford broke out of his early-season, 1-for-25 slump with a go-ahead RBI single in the seventh inning and Kingery followed up his first career home run Monday with his first career grand slam Tuesday to blow the game open in the eighth.
Kapler, meanwhile, opted to let Nola hit in the bottom of the seventh inning even though the 24-year-old righthander was at 88 pitches and the Phillies had a runner on first with a slim 2-1 lead. Unlike opening night in Atlanta, Kapler said he let his eyes and gut make the call this time.
"That's the feel for the game and that's the gut that comes into this thing," Kapler said. "He just looked good out there and it seemed like every inning he ran out to the mound he got stronger and this was the time we were going to ride him."
Nola rewarded his manager's decision with a perfect eighth inning. It was just the sort of thing a staff ace does.