PHILADELPHIA -- Aaron Nola lightly punched his right fist into his glove. He offered a quick fist pump.
It might be as emotional as Nola gets on a baseball field, but he had reason to celebrate following Sunday afternoon’s 2-0 victory over the Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park. He not only pitched the first shutout of his career, he threw the first pitch of his career in the ninth inning. He sure looked like an ace, although he knows he still has a few detractors out there. He heard from them recently after he struggled in each of his last two starts.
“For sure I hear it,” Nola said. “No, it does not bother me.”
It is hard to argue that Nola is not an ace, based on his performance Sunday and the past four seasons. Is he Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer? No, but he is right below them. Nola entered Sunday tied with teammate Zack Wheeler for eighth among all pitchers with a combined 11.5 WAR from 2018-21, according to FanGraphs. Only deGrom, Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer and Lance Lynn ranked ahead of them.
“I don’t know how you could possibly say he’s not an ace,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “He’s a top 10 pitcher in baseball. I’m not sure how that would be considered not an ace. If that was me, that would certainly fuel my fire. People in the clubhouse and people on the field know that he’s an ace. Just look at this guy’s resume. He gets outs. He shows up consistently. I’m not really sure where that comes from. But it’s not from people that know baseball.”
Nola dominated the Cardinals with excellent command of his fastball and an unhittable curveball and changeup. He got 21 misses on 51 swings (41.2 percent) for the fifth-best whiff rate of his career. He struck out 10, nine of them swinging, for the 17th double-digit strikeout game of his career.
He allowed two hits.
Only seven balls left the infield.
Realmuto said his favorite moment of the game was the four-seam fastball Nola threw on the outside corner to strike out left-handed-hitting Justin Williams looking for the second out in the eighth inning. Realmuto said it encapsulated Nola’s day perfectly because it showed everybody just how good he commanded his fastball.
“Nothing in the middle of the plate,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Already got a little review of it, got some feedback -- my eyes have told me the story, the hitters told us the story, we got a lot of good hitters, and that guy was really good today. Offspeed for strikes, fastball with life to it, top of the zone, where you want to put it. I don't know if he missed a spot that I saw, really, mostly the whole day. You don't see many complete games these days. He more than earned his.”
Nola had a pair of complete games last season, but they were six and seven innings, respectively, coming in seven-inning doubleheaders.
They count, but not really.
This was the real deal.
Nola had 102 pitches entering the ninth. Phillies manager Joe Girardi had no thoughts about not having Nola finish the game. He pulled Nola after eight innings and 89 pitches on Aug. 10 last season against Atlanta. He was questioned why. He did not forget. So while he warmed up Héctor Neris, he only intended to use him if Nola put a couple runners on base.
“I knew it was important to him and that’s why I let him go,” Girardi said.
“I was going to fight him to go back out if he didn’t say that I was going back out,” Nola said.
Nola finished the game with just seven more pitches. Teammates dumped a cooler on him afterward.
Was it the most excited he had ever been on a field?
“I don’t know, maybe,” he said, chuckling. “Maybe, I’m not sure. It was cool. It was a cool day, man. That was the first Gatorade shower I ever had. Surprisingly. It was a fun day. It was a great win, it was a great series win. I think that’s the most important thing we take out of it.”
Well, that and the fact that Nola is really good.
“You can look at his numbers every year,” Girardi said. “It says ace. He’s our ace.”