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September 10, 2023

Which version of Aaron Nola will the Phillies get in the playoffs?

Because right now there are three different versions of Aaron Nola, and you don't know which one you're going to get.

In his last three starts, you got three different versions of Aaron Nola.

• August 27 vs. St. Louis: 7.0 innings pitched, 1 hit, 1 walk, and 9 strikeouts in a 3-0 win. A gem.

• September 2 at Milwaukee: 4.2 innings, 8 hits, 3 walks, and 7 earned runs in a 7-5 loss. A disaster. “Overall, I just stunk, really,” he told afterward.

• And then Saturday night against Miami, when everything was looking good until it wasn't. With a 5-0 lead built up going into the fifth, the dreaded blow-up inning struck, and Nola couldn't escape. Starting with a Garrett Hampson solo shot, the Marlins hit five straight off of him to make it a 5-3 game before manager Rob Thomson had to make the change for reliever Jeff Hoffman.

The Phillies' bats, and bullpen, stepped up for him after in an 8-4 win, but Nola's final line for the night stood at 4.1 innings with 7 hits, 4 earned runs, and 6 strikeouts in a no-decision, continuing the season-long concerns – longer even – over which Nola you're going to get from start to start with postseason hopes on the line.

"Hampson got me on a pretty good pitch on a homer and it felt like it kind of just unraveled," Nola said postgame. "Felt like it's gone that way all year, one big inning that does it in for me."

And while that hasn't always been the case this season, it's frustratingly happened far too many times. For every step forward, there always seems to be two steps back. Every time he looks like he's finally putting something together, the next start comes and it all falls back to square one.

Either things goes perfectly and Nola looks like an ace, he's unsteady (or sporadically outright bad) but holds on just long enough for the bats to do enough damage to compensate, or everything looks like it's going good until it just isn't the second that blow-up inning arrives in the fourth or fifth.

There are three different versions of Aaron Nola right now, and wondering which one you're going to get probably shouldn't be a question to ask of a club with World Series aspirations.

And yet, here we are.

Following Saturday night, Nola is posting a 4.64 ERA through 29 starts, the second-worst of his career behind 2016 (4.78) – which was only his second season and his first full one in the majors.

His 185 strikeouts through the year so far are the 11th most in baseball, but his 31 home runs allowed and 91 earned runs surrendered are both the fifth highest.

The quality of the Phillies' starting pitching, once you get past Zack Wheeler at the top, has been arguably the club's biggest concern for the better part of the season, and Nola's wildly-swinging inconsistency as the No. 2 man in the rotation hasn't helped to instill confidence.

He said his struggles aren't mental, nor are they tied to his looming free agency this winter. He's fully focused on this season only. But the struggles are there all the same, and with the NL Wild Card race in the home stretch, he's running out of runway to sort them out.

"I still have a lot of faith in Aaron," Thomson said. "I really do. I trust him, and I think the bigger the game, usually, the more he steps up. I have to live with that, and I believe that's still true."

But right now there are three different versions of Aaron Nola, and you just don't know which one you're going to get.

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