The first inning of Tuesday night’s 5-4 win over Colorado sure seemed threatening when D.J. LeMahieu, the Rockies’ leadoff hitter, reached third base with just one out. So did the third when Tom Murphy doubled to start the inning.
Both chances seemed like the way rallies are born. LeMahieu was 90 feet from home with the heart of the lineup coming to the plate. Murphy was in scoring position for the top of the order.
But the Phillies had Aaron Nola on the mound. What was there to worry about?
Nola coolly navigated through murky water, inducing two groundouts to keep LeMahieu at third and retiring three straight in the third to strand Murphy at second. The pitcher had another spectacular night, one fueled by his unwavering demeanor. He struck out 10 batters without issuing a walk and held the Rockies to four hits in 6 2/3 innings at Citizens Bank Park. His lone run scored after he was lifted in the seventh inning. Nola never seems fazed when trouble arrives. And Tuesday was no different.
“I’ve been in a lot of those situations and I just take it pitch by pitch,” Nola said. “I really can’t get ahead of myself because that’s when you get behind hitters.”
The win gives the Phillies consecutive wins for the first time since May 17. A win on Wednesday would give the Phillies their first series win in six tries. It felt good, Nola said, to “get back on the winning train.”
Nola stranded three runners on Tuesday and the Rockies went 0-for-9 against him with runners in scoring position. His ERA lowered to 2.27, the fourth-best mark in the National League. His curveball resulted in empty swings as Nola used the pitch for nine misses and four of his strikeouts. Tuesday was the eighth time Nola reached the seventh inning in his last 12 starts.
Those factors to Nola’s success are easy to measure. But it is a bit more challenging to quantify just how cool he stays under pressure. His ability to strand runners is a good measure. Nola has left 80 percent of his runners on base this season. It is the NL’s ninth-best rate.
“I smile just thinking about it. It’s really difficult to explain,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I think it is the ability to command the fastball. I think that’s the No. 1 thing. He never feels like he is going to lose control and walk two or three more hitters. ‘I trust my stuff, I trust it’s going to be off the barrel, I trust I’m going to deliver my strike and you’re going to hit it at somebody.’ It is an intangible very few pitchers have. It’s confidence and it’s bravado.”
Scott Kingery provided Nola with some early run support by hitting a three-run homer in the first. It was his first homer since April 10. Kingery drove in another run in the third with a sacrifice fly. The Phillies have been patient with Kingery as the rookie works his way out of a slump. Kapler has said a few times in the last week that he was seeing good at-bats. Tuesday brought results.
Odubel Herrera went 0-for-4 but scored the eventual winning run on Jesmuel Valentin’s single in the eighth after reaching on a wild pitch following his strikeout. Herrera is hitless in his last four games and has just 11 hits in his last 76 at-bats. Herrera’s run put the Phillies ahead by four with just three outs to go. A win seemed safe. But nothing seemed guaranteed after Nola exited. Luis Garcia loaded the bases with no outs and allowed a run before he was replaced by Seranthony Dominguez. The rookie allowed a run-scoring single before retiring the final three batters. He punctuated the win with a wicked slider to strike out Nolan Arenado.
Nola ended his night with 108 pitches, and it was fitting that he was given one more chance to show how cool he is. Trevor Story and Gerardo Parra both singled with one out in the seventh to put runners on first and third. Nola had already exhausted 103 pitches. Perhaps this was how his night would end. But Kapler stuck with his ace. Nola used five pitches to strike out Ian Desmond, freezing him with a low fastball. What trouble?
The crowd booed Kapler as he came to lift Nola, but the move was justifiable. Nola had been pushed far enough. Perhaps the fans just believed that Nola, not the team’s suddenly shaky bullpen, was better suited for the high-pressure situation.
“Whenever Nola’s on the mound, it’s incredible from wherever you’re standing,” Kingery said. “I think it kind of shows us every time he steps out there that it’s good that he’s on our team and we’re not the ones that have to face him.”