When it comes to facing Aaron Nola this year, Ryan Zimmerman has been a lucky man — in that he hasn't had to.
The Phillies ace and Cy Young Award dark horse has made three starts so far this season against the Nationals, allowing just three runs across 21 2/3 innings and earning winning decisions in all three. But Zimmerman has managed to avoid each one, missing a pair of late June meetings while recovering from an oblique strain and then enjoying an off day during last week's 2-0 Phillies win.
Odds are Zimmerman won't be fortunate enough to get left out of the Washington lineup again Tuesday night, when Nola and his still-perfect home record take the mound at Citizens Bank Park. He knows that'll be a challenge.
Nola "does a really good job of mixing his pitches and locating them in and out, adding some tracking off every pitch," Zimmerman said. "You don't see that too much nowadays. A lot of the younger pitchers just throw 95 to 100 and then a slider or sort of an out pitch that you don't have any feel for."
Nola has made more starts (13) against the Nationals than any other opponent in his young career, and while his overall numbers aren't special (4-4 record, 3.57 ERA, 1.24 WHIP), he's been dominant against the Phillies' rival to the south this summer.
Bryce Harper is 1 for 11 against him; Juan Soto is 1 for 10; Adam Eaton is 1 for 7. Among Nats regulars, only Anthony Rendon (3 for 10, all singles) has found any success against the soft-spoken Louisianan. And even Rendon has high praise for the pitcher he's seen evolve from a promising rookie in 2015 to a National League superstar.
"He's using both sides of the plate, whereas before, when he was first called up, he would just pound in, pound in, pound in and hope we would swing at it," Rendon said. "He's more of a smart pitcher now, so it's awesome — even being on the other side — to see him grow."
Rendon, who trails only his teammate Harper for the most all-time plate appearances against Nola by any batter, said he used to expect a steady diet of two-seam fastballs (sinkers) and only the rare four-seamer from Nola. The numbers back that up: In 2016, Nola threw his two-seamer 44 percent of the time and his four-seamer only 14 percent.
This year, those numbers have been nearly flipped, to where Nola throws his four-seamer (35 percent) more than twice as often as his two-seamer (15 percent). That's a change Rendon has definitely noticed. "He knows how to pitch now," the Nats' star infielder said. "He knows how to and where to throw the four-seamer."
Nationals manager Dave Martinez said that he thought his hitters actually made good contact in Nola's eight shutout innings last week, and that he'll advise them to be aggressive against him again Tuesday.
Zimmerman, meanwhile, will look to improve his 3-for-20 career line versus Nola in his (probable) first matchup against this newly elite 2018 version of the Phillies ace.
"I'm not too sure any people have good career numbers off of him," he said, "but he's been pretty impressive thus far."