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June 22, 2017

Reeling Phillies should probably be playing angry, and Thursday was a start

The dangerous thing about losing so many games before a baseball season is even halfway over is the idea that it can become commonplace.

A defeatist mentality can take over, with players arriving each day into the clubhouse expecting to lose. It begins as a wear on the psyche and then begins to inhabit the athlete altogether. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of the psychology spectrum found in the bravado the 2008-11 Phillies has, who arrived at Citizens Bank Park each day expecting to win.

There’s nothing at all wrong with being nice, but as professional athletes getting beat on a daily basis (or almost daily, as the Phils entered Thursday losers of 39 of their previous 50 games) it’s probably OK to get a little pissed off, too. We’re not recommending anyone flip over the postgame spread or throw a piece of furniture at the clubhouse’s newly installed ping pong table – neither of those acts is very productive – but it is OK to get a little angry when things are going as bad as they’ve gone for the Phillies in the last eight weeks.

“These guys need to have an edge” to them, one uniformed personnel said Thursday afternoon.

Perhaps it was fitting then, that three of the most senior members of the Phillies roster took it upon themselves to say enough was enough after losing 13 of the last 14 games, if not with their words or off-the-field actions, but in how they performed within the white lines in a matinee against the Cardinals.

Aaron Nola, the senior most member of the starting rotation, was brilliant. The former first-round pick took a three-hit shutout into the eighth inning.

Freddy Galvis, the longest-tenured player on the roster, ripped the fifth pitch of the day from hard-throwing Cardinals-right-hander Carlos Martinez into the left field seats. The home run gave the Phillies, fresh off one of their worst losses of the season, an early 1-0 lead.

After Nola’s work was through and All-Star hopeful Pat Neshek finished off the eighth, Luis Garcia, the reliever who’s called the Phillies’ bullpen home longer than any of his teammates, marched out and onto the mound to finish off St. Louis. Garcia pumped 97-98-MPH fastballs with a workable slider for a perfect ninth that completed a 5-1 win.

“We’re going to have a happy flight, I can tell you that,” Cameron Rupp said when it was over, with a cross-country flight and a treacherous, three-city, nine-game road about to begin. “That was great, Nola pitched his ass off. That was awesome.”

It looked like Nola, who set the tone for the majority of the day, pitched with an edge, didn’t it?

“It did,” Rupp said.

Isn’t more of that needed around here?

“Yeah, I think that’s just one of those things where it’s hard coming to the ballpark and walking out if here with your head down after you lost,” Rupp said. “Not that we’re getting used to it, but it just keeps happening. I don’t want to say we’re finding ways to lose, but it’s something different every night … it’s hard. It’s hard coming to the ballpark sometimes and forgetting about it and moving on, but today we did that.”

Getting mad isn’t going to turn the Phillies season around, of course. Their ability to salvage the final three-plus months of the season will come down to their ability to play better baseball, and the talent divide (just look at their current 25-man vs. the Washington Nationals’ 25-man roster) is likely going to make it difficult.

The remedy to bad baseball is more consistent performances like the one Nola gave on a sun-splashed afternoon in South Philly on Thursday.

“That's the Nola we all have come to know and love – he was outstanding today,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the 24-year-old right-hander, who held the Cardinals to one run on four hits in 7 1/3 innings while striking out eight and walking two.

“(Pitching coach Bob) McClure asked him when (St. Louis’) Mike Leake was pitching the other day if he noticed anything,” Mackanin continued. “He said, ‘Nothing above the knees.’ And Mac's been preaching to him to keep the ball down. Whatever you do, keep it (down. He was painting on both sides of the plate real good. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups, too.”

Nola has shown flashes of such brilliance throughout his young career and it’s certainly not out of the question for him to take an important next step as a major-league starter in the second half of the 2017 season. Nola did begin his big league career with a 3.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and a 153-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 25 starts.

Player development (both in the minor and major leagues) is rarely linear, however. Growing pains are real. Perhaps they’re over for Nola.

“He's had a lot of success early when he first got here and went through a period where he was struggling to find himself,” Mackanin said. “That looked like the old Nola that we saw, and that's great to see. I was ecstatic.”

Nola knew what he was up against.

The Phillies were in the midst of their fourth losing streak of five-or-more games in the last month. He was sharing a mound on Thursday with Martinez, who struck out 11 in a four-hit shutout against the Phillies just a dozen days earlier.

After Galvis showed Martinez wasn’t invincible with a first-inning solo home run, Nola showed that he couldn’t just hang with one of the National League’s top arms, but he could out-pitch him, too.

“I know what I'm capable of,” he sad. “and I know what I can do. Today was me.”

Nola, who authored the Phillies' fifth straight quality start, a season-high, shoved. Less than 24 hours removed from a sour night, he proved that any baseball’s team’s best momentum is the pitcher taking the ball the next day.

Nola pitched with a purpose, pitched pissed off, and with an edge. Perhaps it’ll rub off on the rest of the room.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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