Aaron Nola stood on the first-base line of Nationals Park as the ace of a first-place club. His peers had voted him an All-Star because of the 20 starts that put him, and the Phillies, there. While Joe Buck validated Nola's status as one of the best pitchers in the
Aaron Nola stood on the first-base line of Nationals Park as the ace of a first-place club. His peers had voted him an All-Star because of the 20 starts that put him, and the Phillies, there. While Joe Buck validated Nola's status as one of the best pitchers in the game and introduced the Phillies' only representative at the Midsummer Classic to a national audience, Nola smiled.
As someone who doesn't usually show much emotion, Nola deserved such. Even if it meant smiling through the boos that come with an appearance in a rival's ballpark.
"It's pretty fun," Nola said after National League's eventual 8-6 loss. "I mean, this whole experience is fun for me."
Nola pitched the fifth inning for the NL. He struck out Royals catcher Salvador Perez with a curveball. Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts -- owner of baseball's best average -- met the same fate thanks to a 96-mph fastball, nearly four mph faster than Nola's 92.6-mph average this year.
"I can get up to 95," Nola said. "I got up to 96 a few times last year, maybe once or twice this year. But I know I can't be throwing 99, 100 like a lot of these guys. I don't really care about that."
After Astros second baseman Jose Altuve -- last year's AL MVP -- knocked a first-pitch single, Nola got Angels outfielder Michael Trout -- the game's best player -- to pop out. He threw 15 pitches, 10 for strikes. Nola said he didn't initially realize who was due up, but Phillies outfielder Rhys Hoskins, a day after competing in the Home Run Derby, noticed the way his teammate elevated his stuff against arguably baseball's best three hitters.
With the scoreless frame, Nola, 25, became the youngest Phillies pitcher in the last 50 years -- besides Cole Hamels in 2007 and Vicente Padilla in 2002 -- to make his All-Star debut. He joined an elite group that includes Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Hall of Famers Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning and Robin Roberts as Phillies to throw in an All-Star Game.
The list goes on, but now Nola is on the top line, after just four years ago being a safe pick in the first round of the 2014 Draft. The Phillies had missed on some pitchers in recent years, but Nola was a solid college pitcher who projected to be the same as a pro. His ceiling, some thought, didn't reach higher than a No. 3 starter.
The fact that Nola arrived in the Major Leagues just 13 months after Draft night was a plus. In that 2015 season, he further justified his first-round status with a 6-2 record and a 3.59 ERA -- not bad for someone who faced college hitters during the previous calendar year.
But injuries derailed Nola's fast track to becoming a rotation mainstay. He didn't pitch the final two months of 2016. His 6-9 record and 4.78 ERA didn't improve upon rookie success. The 2017 season was healthier, but so much about Nola's future was unclear.
Now, it couldn't be more obvious. No NL pitcher has more wins in 2018 than Nola's career-high 12. Only one has a better ERA than his 2.30. The Phillies, meanwhile, hold a half-game advantage atop the NL East.
Those numbers, paired with a dominant All-Star appearance, prove what the Nola has become to the Phillies. They are youngest team in the Majors. None of their 15 All-Stars from 2010-2015 remain with organization. But they have Nola, who has led a new generation to not just relevance, but contention. Tuesday sent a reminder to the rest of baseball.
"I think [Hoskins and I] just wanted to represent the Phillies well," Nola said. "I think we did."
Joe Bloss is a reporter for MLB.com.