Nola's growth hinges on minimizing mistakes

Nola's growth hinges on minimizing mistakes

PHILADELPHIA -- It's just a mistake here and there standing in the way of Aaron Nola taking the next step. In Friday's 5-4 loss to the D-backs, the Phillies right-hander turned in a solid first six innings, allowing two runs on six hits before returning for the seventh.

Were Nola to have completed the seventh, it would have been the first time all season that Phillies starters lasted seven innings in consecutive games.

But there was a mistake.

After allowing a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker, Nola threw over to first base four times before reverting his attention to Gregor Blanco, the task at hand, who was planted in the left-handed batter's box with his club trailing the Phillies, 4-2.

Nola spun a curveball that floated down broadway and landed 424 feet away over the right-field wall, tying the game.

Blanco's game-tying two-run jack

"After six innings, two runs, he pitched pretty well," said Phillies manager Pete Mackanin. "Then in the seventh, he just hung a curveball to Blanco, which is a mistake and he got burned."

The second of two fourth-inning runs Nola allowed scored on an 0-2 curveball that Jeff Mathis grounded up the middle, a better pitch than the one Blanco put a charge into.

"He wanted to bury a curveball to Mathis with two strikes, it was just up high enough for him to drop the head on it," Mackanin said.

"Overall, it was a pretty good outing for him without that mistake [to Blanco]."

Mathis' RBI single

But with that one mistake, what looked like Nola turning a corner now looks a little less optimistic.

"I wasn't efficient with my fastball pretty much all game," Nola said. "I wasn't getting ahead of guys too much. I was trying to get inside on it a lot and I made that mistake with a hanging curveball."

In his eyes, his struggles are pinned around falling behind in the count. It's an uncharacteristic step back for Nola, praised when he was drafted, in the Minors, and early in his big league career as a strike-thrower adept at sequencing his pitches.

"I'm not getting ahead of hitters like I need to, which makes me battle more, which puts a little more stress on you," Nola said. "I just need to get back to first-pitch strikes and getting my body more under control."

Mackanin is a bit more positive about Nola's performance since he challenged the young starter (and Jerad Eickhoff) to pitch better three starts ago. Nola immediately delivered with his best start of the year, eight innings against the Braves on June 6.

Even with the mistakes, Nola's last three starts have been his second-best three-start stretch of 2017 in terms of ERA.

"I think they both responded very well," Mackanin said. "We basically told them how good they were and we want them to show us how good they are. As I said, without a couple mistakes, Nola is pitching much better."

The product isn't finished, nor is it perfect, as Mackanin noted. The mistakes are still there. But the last three starts are something to build on and, if the wrinkles are ironed out, Nola could begin looking more like the early-2016 Nola (2.65 ERA in his first 12 starts) than what he's shown of late. It's simply a matter of minimizing mistakes.

Ben Harris is a reporter for MLB.com based in Philadelphia. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.