PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies are going to need to see this version of Aaron Nola quite a bit this season.
He looked like the guy that Phillies manager Joe Girardi watched pitch for the first time against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 30, 2018, when the right-hander allowed one run in eight innings against Boston. Nola dominated. He dominated the Yankees for six innings on Wednesday night in a 3-1 loss in Game 2 of a seven-inning doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park. Nola struck out a career-high 12 batters, tying a mark he reached twice previously in his career. He generated 19 swings and misses, tying the fourth-highest mark of his career. His swing-and-miss percentage (21.6 percent) was the second-best mark of his career.
“I was like, ‘Man, can this kid pitch,’” Girardi said, recalling Nola’s start in Boston. “And I think that’s what we saw tonight, similar Aaron Nola.”
It is a fair comparison. Nola on Wednesday looked like the pitcher who finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2018.
“I felt like I had games like this last year, too,” Nola said. “I think the main thing was my changeup was pretty consistent tonight. That’s what I had back in ’18 and a couple games last year, but I think that was a separator.”
If only Nola could have pitched longer. He threw just 88 pitches, but it followed a 12-day layoff because of COVID-19- and weather-related postponements.
“We just can’t jeopardize his health,” Girardi said.
Next time, if Nola is pitching like this, he will keep going. The Phillies have little choice at this point. The bullpen is a growing concern for a team that should be a postseason contender. It has a 9.18 ERA (17 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings) this season. Its struggles in Game 1 rippled into Game 2.
Phillies right-hander Tommy Hunter started the top of the seventh inning of a 1-1 game. Girardi said closer Héctor Neris would have started the seventh, but he was asked to finish Game 1.
“It’s not what I wanted to do,” Girardi said.
The Phillies carried an eight-run lead into the seventh inning in Game 1, but the bullpen allowed four runs to score before Neris entered. He earned a one-pitch, one-out save with the tying run in the on-deck circle in an 11-7 victory. But because Neris had not pitched since July 26, the appearance made him unavailable for Game 2.
“We’ve seen how many injuries there have been in the game up to this point,” Girardi said. “I have a responsibility to the organization to win, but I also have a responsibility for the health of our players. And probably even more important, I have a responsibility to the players that I don’t allow them to hurt themselves because they’re trying to be heroes.”
Hunter allowed five consecutive batters to reach base: a single to Giancarlo Stanton, a single to Luke Voit, a double to Mike Tauchman, Gary Sanchez was hit by a pitch and a single to Gio Urshela. Two runs scored.
Is six games enough to make a manager worry?
“We had a quick [Summer Camp] and then you had a seven-day layoff where nobody really pitches,” Girardi said about the bullpen. “I think it’s really hard to evaluate exactly what we’re going to get moving forward. Obviously, we want them to turn around. I believe they will turn around. They just haven’t had consistent work. And it’s hard to be sharp. And we’re playing teams that have been playing every day. I believe we’re going to get better and I know [pitching coach] Bryan [Price] believes we’re going to get better and we’ll get it done.”
But the Phillies had an opportunity to sweep the doubleheader on Wednesday. They need to take advantage of performances like Nola’s. It hurts.
“I think you can take a lot of good from that game even though we didn't win it,” Girardi said. “You feel really good about where Aaron Nola is at. You feel really good about where [Zack] Wheeler's at. I thought Jake Arrieta threw a really good game [Monday]. We just need to continue to build on that. And if you get really, really good starts all the time, you're going to win a lot of games.”