July 02, 2016
For more than a half dozen minutes the only topic of conversation between Pete Mackanin and the press corps during his daily pregame gathering was the status of struggling former first-round pick Aaron Nola.
What’s wrong with him? How long of a leash does he have? Have you thought about shipping him off to Class A Clearwater?
Mackanin answered everything but came around to the following conclusion before making his way out to the field for pregame batting practice:
“I’m hoping he has a good start and I don’t have to worry about it,” the first-year manager said. “In the long term, I’m not concerned about it. It’s just we got to get him out of it right now. He’s had so many great starts against good-hitting teams that we know that’s who he really is. His last start in San Francisco he looked a little bit lost. But he’s a fighter. He’s a competitor.”
A little more than two hours later, the latest chapter in the Nola saga didn’t exactly offer any clarity to how the team could handle the situation. But Mackanin used the words "encouraged" or "encouraging" five times in a three-minute span in his postgame press conference.
Because, oddly, at least if you just looked at the boxscore, Nola didn't pitch badly in a 6-2 defeat to the Royals on Saturday at Citizens Bank Park. He just had one bad inning ... or, perhaps more accurately, one bad at-bat that resulted in a three-run home run.
Nola served up a two-out three-run home run to Kendrys Morales, one of two home runs the Kansas City Royals slugger hit on Saturday, as the defending World Series champs rode that five-run inning (and the left arm of Danny Duffy, who pitched into the ninth) to victory. But after the crushing three-run homer, Nola immediately went on to retire 10 straight batters (six via strikeout) to finish his night.
"He looked like himself, especially those last three innings," Mackanin said. "That was encouraging, to say the least."
Saturday's loss snapped the Phillies four-game winning streak. The Phillies have lost five consecutive games Nola has started and he has a 13.50 ERA in those five games, two things that would have seemed almost unthinkable with the way the 23-year-old was pitching just a month ago.
After shutting out the Milwaukee Brewers over six innings on June 5, Nola had a 2.65 ERA after his first 12 starts of the 2016 season. But after allowing just 23 earned runs in 78 innings in those dozen games, Nola has allowed 27 earned runs in 18 innings since, including Saturday night’s game.
You can’t ignore serving up a two-out home run with two runners on base (and two strikes to the batter, too, since Morales first homer came on a 2-2 count), but what preceded the home run was important in evaluating where Nola is at three months into his first full major league season.
He wasn’t putting away hitters early (he did that later in the game). But Nola was a victim of two infield singles and a blooping hit to right field when the Royals scored their first two runs in the second inning.
He allowed a few hard-hit balls on Saturday night – Whit Merrfield’s first-inning double, Cheslor Cuthbert’s leadoff single in the second, Morales’ home run – but Nola was also victimized by his shares of dinkers and dunkers that are represented in the BABIP metric.
"I feel like they didn’t hit too many balls hard," Nola said. "But they hit them in the right spots, where we weren’t. They scored runs and capitalized on them."
Still, the final line read that Nola had allowed five runs in five innings. And his ERA has jumped from 2.65 to 4.69 in the span of just five games.
Could the Phillies option him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to regain confidence? That was one of the many scenarios thrown at Mackanin before the game, but it sure didn't feel like a possibility after the way Nola finished his start (again, retiring each of the last 10 batters, six on strikeouts).
"I felt like my old self right there," he said. "I felt like that’s what I’m used to doing, that’s what I usually do, command my fastball, command by breaking ball, and my changeup. The last three innings were definitely helpful for me."
But just as Mackanin pulled Nola after those three innings (and after five total innings on the night) because he was at 95 pitches and because he wanted the pitcher to leave on a good note, couldn't the same argument be made for shutting him down until the All-Star break, letting him finish the first half on a good note, too?
"We’re trying to cover all of the possibilities and that’s one of them," Mackanin admitted after the game.
The manager said he would confer with pitching coach Bob McClure and general manager Matt Klentak before Sunday afternoon's game to make a decision on what's next for Nola. But it felt like Mackanin's vote would be to let Nola continue going through the break.
"I thought was he looked like relaxing and not trying to do too much, he looked like his old self," Mackanin said. "That was very encouraging to me."
"I’d rather take the ball, keep going out there and keep trying to make pitches and keep giving the team the best chance to win," he said.
If he stayed on his turn, Nola would be making just one more start before the break in Denver against the Colorado Rockies. If the Phillies choose to skip Nola instead, Adam Morgan could easily jump in and fill the void and Nola could get as many as 17 days off in between starts.
But on a day that began with the latter feeling like a distinct possibility, Nola survived a home run, one that sunk his team on Saturday, to bring himself back afloat.
"I feel like it happens, it happens to a lot of guys," Nola said of the preceding four-start stretch and the mental grind that followed. "For me to clear all of that out and focus on this game, the new month, and put everything that happened in June behind me, to go out today and really challenge the hitters and go after them the best that I could."