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October 06, 2023

When the Phillies needed him most, Aaron Nola was 'nails'

In the face of a wildly up and down season, longtime Phillie Aaron Nola delivered a spectacular start to close out the Marlins in the Wild Card Series.

Aaron Nola walked back to the Phillies' dugout on Wednesday to the cheers and applause of more than 45,000 strong.

Seven innings were complete, and all the Miami Marlins had to show for it were just three hits and a walk in what had snowballed into a massive 7-0 hole.

Zack Wheeler had already scorched them the night before, and in Game 2, Nola kept them on the ground.

In front of the electric home crowd at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies put away the Marlins 7-1 to take the NL Wild Card Series in two games and move on to the powerhouse Atlanta Braves who await in the NLDS.

And Nola did more than his part in getting them there with an outright spectacular performance – one that everyone in the building needed to see.

Nola needed it in the face of a wildly up and down season, every fan in the seat and watching at home needed it to know that they might not have to hold their breath once these later postseason games reach what had become those dreaded combustible middle innings, and the Phillies needed it to confirm that they do have a 1-2 punch at the top capable of driving this thing all the way to the end.

"The Phillies go with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler," catcher J.T. Realmuto said from the clubhouse postgame as the music blasted and the beer and champagne flew. "When those guys are nails, we're a heck of a ball club. That's what they've done for us these last two postseasons and that's what they've done for us for years."

And they're gonna need both of them to be "nails" for just a few weeks longer.

Nola was sharp out of the gate Wednesday night, mowing through the first two frames with clear command over his changeup, sinker, and knuckle curve. But his struggles this season were never in starting strong, they were always in sustaining that momentum deep into games, especially with baserunners on.

And that first crucial playoff stress test came in the third inning when, with one out, Marlins shortstop Jon Berti doubled on a fly ball to left-center that just carried over the outstretched glove of a Cristian Pache on the run.

With no score by that point, early pressure was suddenly on. Go back to May or June and there's a good chance Nola cracks in this situation – either a home run goes flying out to tack runs on, he loses control of his command and wastes away pitches, or just leaves them hanging over the plate for opponents to feast on.

Back then, the stars had to align for Nola to stay out there. There was little room for error.

But Wednesday night was different.

The thought of 'Is the blowup coming?' couldn't be entirely ignored, but through roaring cheers on every two-strike count and relentless waving of the rally towels, the home crowd made it crystal clear that they were fully behind the longest-tenured Phillie.

And he stayed steady.

Keeping an eye on an anxious Berti at second, Nola fell into a 3-2 count against Miami catcher Jacob Stallings in the very next at-bat. He came set but then stepped right out of the start of his windup.

Berti tried to get the jump on a steal of third. Nola caught him in no man's land red-handed. A quick throw to Alec Bohm and he was out. Two down. Then the payoff pitch to Stallings induced a soft bouncer also sent in Bohm's direction, which was met with an automatic throw to first.

Three down. Nola started the walk back to the dugout, the crowd was up, and the Phillies' bats were about to reward him with a couple of runs.

One heads-up play and the dominoes fell on a serious momentum shift Philadelphia's way.

"I feel like there was a little momentum shift," Nola said of the situation. "I mean for a pitcher, it's definitely a plus to pick a guy off in a situation like that, especially on a guy that can run when he's on second base with less than two outs.

"You know he's gonna try to get to third, and you got the nine-hole hitter up, and you got the highest average hitter [Luis Arráez] on deck. So to get that out was huge, and then I just tried to make my pitch to Stallings with that 3-2 count and it ended up working out well."

"I thought that really stopped some momentum," manager Rob Thomson said. "Right there in its track. That was a big play."

That only led to more – from Realmuto's solo homer in the fourth, a clutch double play that got Nola and the Phils out of the fifth, and then, of course, Bryson Stott's grand slam in the sixth to top it all off – all while Nola stayed locked in and kept the Marlins locked down.

He did more than his part to send the Phillies on their way to the next round, and – specific to late Wednesday night – the next party. He was "nails." And he needed that. Everyone in the building did.

"I feel so proud of him, because of he went through a lot this year," Thomson said. "He struggled at times and there were the home runs and the big innings and things like that, but he just kept grinding, kept fighting, kept working. Finally, he found some stuff at the end of the year and he's been lights out.

"I expected this. I really did, because I know who he is. I've seen him do this before, and he just came through...He's a warrior, he really is. He just keeps fighting and keeps trying to get better."

And the Phillies need him, and Wheeler, to just keep it going up at the top for a few weeks longer.

"I just tried my best to follow Wheels up," Nola said. "He set the tone in Game 1. Obviously, he dealt as usual,'s a big win for us."

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