PHILADELPHIA -- When Aaron Nola finished a scoreless first inning Saturday, a tiny "F" appeared on the out-of-town scoreboard on Citizens Bank Park's right-field fence. The Braves had lost at Fenway Park and first place was up for grabs.At that point, Nola had one frame in the books. It included
PHILADELPHIA -- When Aaron Nola finished a scoreless first inning Saturday, a tiny "F" appeared on the out-of-town scoreboard on Citizens Bank Park's right-field fence. The Braves had lost at Fenway Park and first place was up for grabs.
At that point, Nola had one frame in the books. It included a four-pitch walk. A week earlier, he had thrown his worst start of the season, a four-run, six-inning outing in St. Louis.
Any doubt that Nola wasn't at his absolute sharpest on Saturday quickly vanished during the Phillies' 2-1 win.
"He just continues to be creative," manager Gabe Kapler said. "He continues to refine his arsenal. His curveball just seems to keep getting better. He knows how to mix his pitches. He was tremendous."
Nola needed 13 pitches for a brief second inning. Another 1-2-3 third followed. His pitch count rose, but Nola finished the sixth inning having retired 17 straight Blue Jays, striking out the last five and not allowing a ball to reach the outfield. A "0" remained under the Blue Jays' hit column on the scoreboard from pregame.
A rain delay kept Nola away from action for roughly 22 minutes following the conclusion of the sixth inning. The no-hitter and a 1-0 lead delivered via a Maikel Franco solo shot vanished in an arduous seventh inning on Nola's 113th pitch. Nola left to a thunderous ovation from the 26,788 fans on hand, and his late fade mattered little after Nick Williams reclaimed the lead with a pinch-hit home run in the eighth.
Seranthony Dominguez replaced Nola in the seventh and pitched a scoreless eighth to earn his first Major League win. Luis Garcia closed out the ninth with little resistance. He is the fifth Phillies pitcher to earn a save this season.
The Phillies, behind their bona fide ace, were alone atop the National League East.
"That," Kapler said, "means a lot to the clubhouse."
In his prior three seasons with the team, Nola had never experienced being atop the division.
"It's pretty cool," Nola said. "It's the first time I've been in first place since I've been up. We still have to go play baseball."
"Really wanted to give [Nola] a chance to get through that inning," Kapler said. "He earned it."
With his dominance against a Blue Jays lineup that put up 11 hits the night before, Nola showed yet again what he has quickly become. At the beginning of last season, Nola's status for the future was not clear. He had a history of injuries, and was inconsistent because of missed games. Those days appeared distant while Nola cruised through the first six innings.
Nola has proven that he will give the Phillies a chance to win every time he is on the mound. He continues to build an impressive resume toward becoming the first Phillies starting pitcher since Cliff Lee in 2013 to become a National League All-Star. As it stands, Max Scherzer and Nola seem like the frontrunners to start the Midsummer Classic in Washington.
"I admire talent," Kapler said, "but I admire being prepared, and competitiveness, and a baseball savvy -- and mental toughness more than anything. And all of those things describe Aaron Nola."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Williams blasted the second pitch he saw into the right-center-field seats, quickly uplifting a club that just saw Nola's no-hit bid slip away an inning earlier.
"I was just looking for something up, something to drive," Williams said. "Something that I could hit hard. Especially in that situation. I was trying to get something going."
After complaining about playing time a week into the season, Williams has adjusted to thrive off the Phillies' bench. He is 9-for-19 as a pinch-hitter with three home runs. Greg Dobbs had 23 pinch-hits for the Phillies in 2008 and Williams is on pace to threaten that record.
The Phillies have not held sole possession of first place in the NL East [this late in a season] since the end of the 2011 season, when they won 102 games. That team was 30-19 through 49 games. These Phillies are 29-20.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Scott Kingery, a natural second baseman, has been adjusting to playing more shortstop since J.P. Crawford went on the DL earlier this month. He made two impressive plays Saturday, including a putout of Yangervis Solarte in the fifth. After starting the play shaded to the right of second base, Kingery attacked a grounder up the middle and threw across his body while fading away from first base.
"Scott Kingery had a nice game," Kapler said. "Nice ballgame. Really good on defense. Looked like a shortstop today."
HE SAID IT
"Don't let anyone tell you they aren't paying attention to the standings in May. I don't think that's true of any baseball man that I've been around, or any baseball fan that I've been around. You pay attention, you care and it means something. It's special. Being in first place at any point is special." -- Kapler
Nick Pivetta (4-2 3.23 ERA) will start for the Phillies in Sunday's 1:35 p.m. ET game at Citizens Bank Park. He's allowed one run and struck out 25 in his last three starts combined. On the bump for the Blue Jays will be a familiar face in former Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ, who owns a 6-3 record and a 3.97 ERA.
** Joe Bloss ** is a reporter for MLB.com based in Philadelphia.