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May 14, 2016

Behind Aaron Nola, Phillies hold on to another one-run victory

Aaron Nola was still pitching in college two years ago this month. He does not turn 23 until next month.

He still has a long way to go to, just as everyone that wants to throw a label on him should probably ease up and give him a few years.

The word two years ago, when he was potential top-10 draft pick, was that Nola was an advanced college pitcher that should be able to move quickly through the minor leagues and into a big league uniform. The word was spot-on.

But while Nola was applauded for his pitchability and maturity, many wondered whether he was more than a mid-rotation arm, and not the No.1 pitcher type teams hope to select in the first round of any draft.

He doesn’t throw in the upper 90s. He isn’t built like a Felix Hernandez or a Stephen Strasburg.

But it’s difficult to argue with the results. Although we surely aren’t labeling the second-year starter an ace after 21 career starts, you can’t help but come away impressed each time you see him pitch.

Like on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park against the Cincinnati Reds.

Nola saw his way through a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first inning, yielding just one run, and then escaped another troublesome inning in the seventh, stranding two runners in scoring position with one out. In between, Nola retired 15 of the 16 batters he faced, five on strikeouts.

It wasn’t a dominating performance, but it was close to it and it ended with a 4-3 Phillies victory. 

"After his first inning – I won’t say he struggled, but he gave them a couple of pitches to hit – after that, he was outstanding," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was great."

The Phillies have won six of their last It was the fifth straight win for the Phillies (22-15) in a Nola start.

Nola set the tone for a game that had a pretty insane finish: David Hernandez only escaped trouble in the ninth when Tyler Goeddel got under a fly ball in deep left field and fired a missile to home plate. Cameron Rupp made like Aaron Rowand, ignored potential contact and focused on the ball.

Rupp got lit up by Reds infielder Eugenio Suarez. But he also held onto the ball.

When he got up, Citizens Bank Park (filled with 29,535 on a Saturday night) erupted. Rupp is a new cult hero – you can read all about the game-ending play here – but his battery mate was pretty good, too.

When Nola’s night was over after 100 pitches and seven innings, he had a 2.89 ERA, good enough for 15th in the National League.

But his 0.85 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is second best in the NL, behind Clayton Kershaw. And after striking out nine and walking one on Saturday, Nola’s 6.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked fourth-best in all of baseball.

"He’s just got a great way about him," Mackanin said of a 22-year-old who pitches like a seasoned veteran. "He’s a heck of a pitcher. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows how to make adjustments during the course of a game. He knows what’s working for him and what’s not. He’s a lot of fun to watch pitch."

"The guy is unbelievable," Rupp said of Nola bouncing back from a hairy first inning. "Nothing fazes him. he’s out there, it doesn’t matter what pitch it it, pitch one or pitch 100, he’s the same guy. And it’s awesome to be back there working with him."

Again, no one is crowing a 22-year-old kid an ace, but he’s pitching like a top of the rotation starter this season.

Nola has pitched at least seven innings in six of his eight starts this season. Dating back to last year, Nola has a 3.31 ERA in 21 career starts and a 4.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

After battling through a stressful first inning – stressful because it began with back-to-back singles and then being squeezed by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza after getting ahead 0-2 on Joey Votto – Nola used his signature fastball command, complemented by his always-biting curveball and his rapidly-improving changeup, to toy with Cincinnati’s lineup. After he walked off the mound in the fourth inning, the only question was whether he’d get any run support: the Phillies trailed 1-0.

But then, one run came. Maikel Franco and Ryan Howard hit back-to-back doubles in the fourth; the double was the first hit for Howard that was not a home run this month.

And then, two more runs followed. Tyler Goeddel (2-for-3, a walk) led off with a single and scored the go-ahead run when Odubel Herrera ripped an 0-2 pitch back up the middle. Cesar Hernandez followed with a run-scoring single of his own.

After the Reds put a brief rally together in the seventh – a rally which began with Rupp throwing a ball into center field – Herrera gave the Phillies their two-run lead back with a solo home run in the seventh. The home run was Herrera’s fourth of the season.

It may be too early to label Nola anything other than young, developing major league starter. But, as the calendar moves into mid-May, we can say this: through six weeks, Nola and Herrera (2-for-4, hitting .336 on the season) look like strong candidates to represent the surprising Phillies at the All-Star Game in San Diego in two months.

Oh, and there's this: about an hour or so after the Phillies won, the Colorado Rockies held on to a 7-4 win over the New York Mets at Coors Field. The Phillies leapfrogged over the Mets and into second place, one game behind the first-place Washington Nationals. 

"A lot of people had a lot of doubts on us," Nola said. "But I feel like we have an inner competitiveness between this group. We don’t want to do bad, obviously. I feel like we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder. Because people are doubting us. We want to go out every time and compete, and that’s what we’ve been doing."