NEW YORK — It's always a good time for the Phillies when they can hand the ball to Aaron Nola. The ace righthander is one of the best pitchers in baseball and a newly minted all-star. And, at age 25, he's just getting warmed up.
But it was particularly timely when Nola walked to the mound here Monday night.
About a half-hour before Nola delivered his first pitch in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the New York Mets, the Phillies had lost, 4-3, on Wilmer Flores' 10th-inning pinch-hit solo home run off the left-field foul pole.
It was only one game, sure. But the Phillies hadn't held anything back, even using relief ace Seranthony Dominguez for two innings only to see the offense go 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and leave 12 men on base, five in the last three innings.
"We weren't thinking about preserving bullets for game two," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We were thinking about emptying the clip in game one if we needed to."
Why? The Phillies, Kapler said, trust Nola to pitch deep into every game he starts. And he wasn't about to let them down now — on the mound or at the plate.
Nola one-hit the Mets for seven scoreless innings, racking up 10 strikeouts and facing two batters over the minimum in a sweep-averting 3-1 victory at Citi Field. And if all that wasn't enough, Nola drove in the Phillies' runs himself with a bases-clearing two-out double in the fifth inning against Mets starter Corey Oswalt. With one swing, Nola doubled his career RBI total from 136 previous at-bats.
"It was as good as I've seen him, if not the best that I've seen him — and obviously the double was cool on so many levels," Kapler said. "We needed to lean on him, and he just had like the broadest shoulders possible in that moment."
Nola's burden wouldn't have been so heavy if only the Phillies had cashed in their opportunities late in that first game. And as they started the final week before the all-star break — with pitching prospect Enyel De Los Santos set to make his major-league debut Tuesday night and Mets ace Jacob deGrom looming in the series finale Wednesday — they needed Nola as much as ever to help them become the National League's fifth 50-win team.
From his first pitch — a 93-mph heater to Amed Rosario — Nola dazzled. His signature curveball was particularly nasty, and he got Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto to swing haplessly at it for strikeouts in the first inning. And while his breaking ball was good early, he got a bunch of swings and misses later in the game with his change-up.
"I definitely wanted to win a little more tonight because of the loss," Nola said.
The Mets put only two runners on base against Nola and neither advanced into scoring position. If not for a 12-pitch at-bat by Nimmo that resulted in a strikeout in the seventh inning, Nola might have been able to go the distance. Instead, he gave way after 104 pitches to reliever Tommy Hunter, who allowed a two-out run in the ninth inning.
If the first game raised anew the question of whether the Phillies bench is deep enough — Aaron Altherr grounded into a double play in the sixth inning before rookies Jesmuel Valentin and Dylan Cozens struck out in the eighth and 10th, respectively — the second game brought back the same concerns about the Phillies' overall offense.
Making only his third career start, Corey Oswalt looked more like Roy Oswalt (no relation) in retiring the first 12 batters. Carlos Santana worked a leadoff walk in the fifth inning to finally give the Phillies a baserunner. Altherr also drew a walk, and with two outs, Mets manager Mickey Callaway ordered an intentional walk of hot-hitting Maikel Franco to face Nola, who was 2-for-35 this season and 9-for-136 in his career.
It's no wonder Kapler said the Phillies dugout erupted as loudly as it has all season when Nola lined a first-pitch fastball into the right-field corner to empty the bases.
"The pitchers, we always mess with each other about hitting," Nola said. "They're probably shocked, too."
Said Kapler: "I'm maybe being a little Pollyanna-ish or at least optimistic that he could do it, but we needed it. We weren't getting hits anywhere else."
Indeed, by now the Phillies know better than to doubt they can count on Nola for almost anything.