PHILADELPHIA -- Phillies manager Gabe Kapler had high hopes for Aaron Nola last month, when he said his ace would pitch every five days the rest of the season.
Nola was built for this, he said.
But the Phillies are winless in Nola’s starts since they adjusted his schedule. Nola allowed four runs in six innings in Monday night’s 7-2 loss to the Braves at Citizens Bank Park, dropping them three games behind the Cubs for the second National League Wild Card spot with 19 games to play.
The Braves, meanwhile, cut their magic number to clinch the National League East to 10. The Braves have the best record in baseball (60-29) since the Phillies were a season-high 11 games over .500 on May 29. The Phillies, however, are 41-47 since.
“I think it’s an assortment of things,” Bryce Harper said when asked why the Braves have been so much better. “You can talk about injuries or anything like that. Or you can talk about our bullpen or timely hitting or things like that, not coming up big with a couple hits, especially myself. But all around, I think we have to play better baseball.
“There’s teams at this level who have had injuries and performed at a great level this year and there’s some teams who don’t have good pitching that are still there as well, and hitting. I think as a club we just have to play better, be better as a team and just keep going. If we get into that Wild Card game, after that, nothing else matters.”
The Phillies’ play since May factored into the decision to pitch Nola every five days the rest of the way. He is by far the team’s best pitcher. The other four starters in the rotation have been inconsistent at best. But Nola has allowed nine runs in 10 innings in his last two starts. He is 23-22 with a 4.52 ERA in 56 career starts on four days of rest. He is 30-11 with a 2.59 ERA in 68 career starts with five or more days of rest.
“I’m not panicking at all,” Nola said. “It happens. It’s baseball. I’m not going to have it every start. You have bad ones.”
As of now, there are no plans to change Nola’s schedule.
“That's not something we're considering right now,” Kapler said. “We probably want to get every start out of him that we possibly can. He maintained his stuff throughout that outing and actually got stronger as the game went on. His command started to come back, his curveball got sharper, leaned heavily on his changeup as well. I understand why you're curious about that, but for right now, we have him lined up to make as many starts as possible because he's always our best option.”
In short, even if Nola is not at his best he is still better than the rest.
“I feel fine,” said Nola, whose four-seam fastball averaged 93.8 mph, up from his season average of 92.9 mph. “My body is healthy. My arm feels good.”
Nola allowed a leadoff home run to Ronald Acuña Jr. on the second pitch of the game. He loaded the bases with no outs, but escaped the inning allowing only one more run. Nola allowed two more runs in the second before capping his night off with four scoreless innings.
Nola is scheduled to pitch Saturday against the Red Sox, Sept. 19 in Atlanta, Sept. 24 in Washington and Sept. 29 against the Marlins.
Sept. 29 is the season finale. Maybe it will mean something.
But the Phillies need to start playing better immediately. They are at the beginning of a grueling 17-game stretch. They play seven games against the Braves, two against the Red Sox, three against the Indians and five against the Nationals. They finish the season against the Marlins, who are 9-7 against them this year.
The Phillies must finish 8-11 to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2011. They have their sights set much higher than that, but with every loss their postseason chances become slimmer.
“We have to be better,” Harper said.