April 16, 2016
After issuing a leadoff walk for the second time on Saturday night, Aaron Nola got behind on the first pitch he threw to the National League’s most dangerous hitter.
It was not an ideal way to begin the fifth inning, when the Phillies were already trailing 5-0. There probably wasn’t going to be any perfect pitch Nola could deliver in the situation that would put him in a better spot against Bryce Harper.
After trying to work the outside of the plate on the first fastball, Nola tried to go inside on pitch No.2 to Harper. It wasn’t inside enough.
The reigning National League MVP unleashed his famous, ferocious swing and watched as the ball flirted with the foul pole and landed to the left of it, deep into the right field seats.
Harper’s fifth home run of the season made Washington’s lead look more like the first quarter score of Eagles-Redskins. And it pretty much sealed Nola and the Phillies' fate in the worst start of the 22-year-old right-hander’s young career.
For the second straight night, the Nats spanked the Phils. Nola served up three runs in the first inning – which included the first of the aforementioned leadoff walks – and Max Scherzer had his way with the Phillies' futile bats in a 8-1 Washington victory.
"I felt like the only thing I could throw tonight was my breaking ball," Nola said. "And I can’t throw that the whole night. I was missing spots on my fastball, four-seam and two-seam. I didn’t have it out of the gate.
"I had to try to battle to make better pitches. But I kept missing, and they didn’t miss swings on them."
The Nationals have won 9 of their first 10 games to begin the season. It’s the best start in the history of their franchise, dating back to their days in Montreal, too, and it’s also the best start in Washington baseball history.
The Phillies, meanwhile, dropped their first series since the season-opening three-game stay in Cincinnati. But unlike at Great American Ball Park then, or at Citi Field and then Citizens Bank Park earlier this week, the starting pitching has failed the Phils in the last two nights.
One night after Jeremy Hellickson put up a five-spot in the first inning of the first of 19 games between the Nationals and Phillies this season, Nola battled with command issues throughout Saturday night. And when he found the strike zone, it often resulted in balls hit hard throughout the home team’s hitter-friendly ballpark.
Nola walked Michael Taylor to begin the game, then served up two singles and a triple in the inning, too. He didn’t get much help from his outfield defense – Darin Ruf, starting in left for the first time this season to boost the offense, juggled a ball on what would have been a potential out at home on a sacrifice fly attempt – but Nola didn’t help himself, either, with each of his leadoff walks on Saturday night.
Nola’s third walk came after Wilson Ramos hit a two-out double in the fourth.
He fell behind Washington eight-hole hitter Danny Espinosa, a career .230 hitter, 2-0. He was instructed to intentionally walk Espinosa to get to Scherzer. Scherzer followed with a two-run double.
"That really kind of iced it," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We didn't have much offense tonight."
The Phillies haven't had much offense most nights in 2016.
Saturday marked the seventh time in 12 games they've failed to score more than two runs. The Phils have scored 31 runs this season, an average of 2.58 per game (nearly a run lower than the lowly San Diego Padres, 3.54 RGP, entering Saturday).
"I mean, it’s hard to come back when I give up seven runs in a game," Nola said, when asked if it was tougher to pitch when the margin of error is greater with a struggling offense. " It doesn’t really matter what team – it’s going to be tough to come back on seven runs."
The seven earned runs that Nola allowed were the most in his big league career (16 starts). The Phillies have lost each of Nola’s three starts this season.
But, before you begin to panic – and some of you are, don’t lie – it’s best to remember that Aaron Nola has made all of 16 big league starts and is still two months away from his 23rd birthday. Saturday night should serve as a reminder that, with a young pitching staff comes growing pains.
Vince Velasquez was dominant on Thursday afternoon and Jerad Eickhoff was pretty impressive himself on Wednesday. It would be more than a mild shock if both finish the final 5 1/2 months of their own first, full major-league seasons without enduring their own struggles.
Scherzer, the $210 million man on the mound for Washington on Saturday night, went through plenty of it. While he burst onto the scene in Arizona in 2008 as a first-rounder with electric stuff, he had a 4.12 ERA in his first full season in 2009 … and he had a 4.43 ERA in 2011 before turning into one of the game’s best in 2013, at the age of 28.
Clayton Kershaw? He had a 4.26 ERA as a 20-year-old rookie in 2008. Zack Greinke? He went 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA in 33 starts as a 21-year-old in 2005.
This isn’t to say Aaron Nola will become Scherzer, Kershaw or Greinke in a half dozen years. It’s just a reminder that, once again, young pitchers will endure struggles.
How about some names you’re more familiar with?
A 25-year-old Cliff Lee had a 5.43 ERA in 2004, his first full season in the Cleveland Indians rotation. A 23-year-old Roy Halladay was sent all the way back to A-ball in 2001 when he had a 10.64 ERA in 19 games with the Toronto Blue Jays a year earlier. And, of course, Cole Hamels followed up his memorable 2008 (when he had a 3.09 ERA in the regular season, before putting the Phillies on his back in the postseason) by sporting a 4.32 ERA in 32 games with the Phillies in 2009.
"It’s going to happen whether you like it or not, whether you want it to or not," Nola said of growing pains. "You’ve seen in a lot of guys. It’s something we don’t want too go through, obviously. But, I guess we hit it every now and then. I’m just going to focus on this week, have a good work week and get ready for the next outing."
So, relax. Sure, Nola got beat up on Saturday.
But this isn’t unexpected or a harbinger for his career, either.
"I don’t expect Nola to be perfect every time out, especially a guy who relies on command so much," Mackanin said. "Nola is a lot better than he pitched tonight."