Phillies righty shows wicked offspeed stuff during impressive streak
By Ben Harris
PHILADELPHIA -- On Alumni Weekend, when the franchise's greats were honored pregame, it was Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola, some two-and-a-half hours later, who received the last round of applause.
Nola dropped what now seems a customary effort -- seven innings, eight strikeouts, two measly hits and a lonely earned run -- in Saturday's 3-1 win over the Mets, the latest chapter in the rejuvenated Nola's tome, one detailing historic mastery unrivaled in the last century-plus of Phillies lore.
It was Nola's 10th consecutive outing allowing no more than two runs, making him the first Phillies pitcher since 1893, when current mound regulations were established, to accomplish such a feat. He hasn't allowed more than two runs in a start in nearly two months, striking out 78 (10.3 per nine innings) with 18 walks.
It's not only that Nola has found such sustained success that makes his performance so remarkable -- it's that he's done it at age 24, merely two seasons into his big league career. A veteran Roy Halladay never strung together so many appearances for the Phils. Nor did peak Cole Hamels, or Hall of Famer (and Phillies Wall of Famer) Steve Carlton, who was honored during pregame festivities.
In a season of progress for Nola, his secondary pitches are trending upwards. He induced nine swinging strikes with his curveball on Saturday, a career high to go along with 13 called strikes on his two-seamer. The coaching staff has raved about his improved changeup, which allows him to more meticulously, and unpredictably, attack both left- and right-handers. It plays beautifully off that fastball; the two pitches had around 9 mph of separation on Saturday, and can fool even the game's most dangerous hitters.
"It's a night and day difference, being able to rely on the changeup," manager Pete Mackanin said.
Maybe no hitter is as hot at Citizens Bank Park as Yoenis Cespedes. But he met his match in Nola, who has now allowed just five earned runs in his last 42 1/3 innings at home. Cespedes did crush a curveball for a homer in the fourth -- not even a particularly bad curveball -- but found himself in an 0-2 hole in his next at-bat.
Comfortably ahead, Nola buzzed the tower, slinging a fastball up and in -- sending Cespedes stumbling back. The crowd cheered Nola. The slugger stared back at him.
"Yeah, I was aware," Nola said of Cespedes' glare.
Next pitch, Nola reached back for that newly improved changeup, starting it right down the middle before it disappeared below both Cespedes' knees and his fearsome hack.
"I didn't want to let him beat me again," Nola said.
Against the long ball-happy Mets, who have out-homered the Phillies, 18-4, in six games at Citizens Bank Park this year, firing a heater right into their kitchen is a must. A comfortable hitter dictates the zone and can extend his hands without worry. So Nola brushed Cespedes back with confidence and poise beyond his years and experience, not just because he could, but because it set up what came next.
"We like to see our guys come in on hitters," Mackanin said. "I was happy to see him do that, I wish we saw more of that to keep those hitters honest so they don't lean out or dive over the plate."
But Nola's latest gem, to him at least, wasn't as pretty as the box score may dictate. Was everything working as his sparkling line would dictate?
"Sort of," Nola said. "I really didn't command the ball down as best as I could. But I just tried to command it best that I could."
If there's truly more room for growth, even in such a radiant outing, there may be even more in stock where this torrid streak originated.
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.