SAN DIEGO -- Aaron Nola had been nearly perfect for 21 days.
He had been pitching his best baseball in the most important games of his life. Nola pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings Oct. 3, when the Phillies clinched their first postseason appearance since 2011 in Houston. He pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings Oct. 8, when they clinched the National League Wild Card Series in St. Louis. He allowed one unearned run in six innings Friday, when they beat the Braves in Game 3 of the NL Division Series at Citizens Bank Park.
But Nola allowed six runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings in the Phillies' 8-5 loss to the Padres on Wednesday in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series at Petco Park to even the best-of-seven series. Philadelphia handed Nola a four-run lead in the second, but he could not hold on. It marked the third time the Phils blew a four-run lead in postseason history -- it also happened in Game 2 of the 2011 NLDS and Game 4 of the 1993 World Series.
“It stinks that those guys gave me a 4-0 lead and I gave it right back up,” Nola said. “But I’m going to flush this one and focus on my next one.”
The Phillies will flush it, too.
“Definitely not the best case, but not the worst case,” Kyle Schwarber said. “But it’s still pretty good. We took away the home-field advantage part of it. So now it’s even. We’ll see who can win three games first. We’re excited to get back to Philly.”
The Phillies and Padres will play Games 3, 4 and 5 in Philadelphia. Ranger Suárez will pitch Game 3 on Friday night, which is a critical one. In best-of-seven series tied 1-1 with the current 2-3-2 format, the Game 3 winner has won the series 67 of 97 times (69 percent).
Noah Syndergaard, Bailey Falter or an opener could start Game 4 on Saturday night. Zack Wheeler will pitch Game 5 on Sunday afternoon. Nola will pitch Game 6 (if necessary) on Monday in San Diego, with no off-day between Games 5 and 6. It could be his shot at redemption.
He has been so sharp these past three weeks that Wednesday’s performance was almost jarring. The Padres put 15 balls in play with an average exit velocity of 97.9 mph. It was the highest such mark in a single game of Nola’s eight-year career, surpassing an average exit velocity of 96.1 mph against the Cardinals on May 7, 2019.
“I felt like I had decent control,” Nola said. “They just put some good swings on it. I [have] got to go back and look and see if they were sitting on those fastballs late in the count.”
“He just wasn’t his best today,” Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham said. “He didn’t seem to have the one pitch that could have gotten him out of that big inning. They were ready for his fastball.”
Any chance Nola could have been tipping his pitches?
“We’ll take a look, but I think most of those I can explain,” Cotham said. “A, they’re really good hitters. It just wasn’t his day. But we’ll take a look. I think he’ll be a lot better next time. He’s been outstanding.”
After the Phillies scored four runs in the top of the second, Nola allowed home runs on consecutive pitches to Brandon Drury and Josh Bell in the bottom of the frame to cut their lead to 4-2. The Padres then opened the floodgates and scored five runs in the fifth. Ha-Seong Kim started the decisive inning with a single before Austin Nola stepped into the batter’s box with one out.
Aaron Nola’s older brother had grounded out in his first plate appearance in the second inning. It was the first time in MLB postseason history a set of brothers faced each other as pitcher and batter.
“I want to beat him,” Aaron Nola said. “I want to go to the next round and let him go home, but it definitely is cool.”
Aaron threw Austin a 95 mph sinker that backed over the plate in the fifth, which the Padres' catcher drilled to right-center field to score Kim from first and further shrink the Phillies' early lead to 4-3.
Jurickson Profar followed by singling to right on a first-pitch curveball to put runners at the corners. Juan Soto then hit an 0-2 sinker for a double to score Austin Nola and tie the game. Left-hander Brad Hand began to warm up in the bullpen as the Phillies’ once comfortable lead came apart at the seams. Aaron Nola then struck out Manny Machado for the second out.
The Phillies called for Hand to get Jake Cronenworth, but he hit him with a 2-2 slider to load the bases. It was a big misfire. Drury had a .955 OPS against lefties this season, compared to a .757 OPS against righties. He followed up his earlier power display and hit a 3-2 slider to center field to score two runs to make it 6-4. Bell promptly singled to score another run to make it 7-4, a deficit from which the Phillies could not emerge.
“That’s the three-batter rule,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said of having to watch Hand face Drury and Bell. “That's the rule, and you've got to live with it. But he's had a lot of success, [a] veteran guy. I thought that was the right guy to go to.”
The Phillies flew home Wednesday night. They will rest Thursday and return to action Friday.
“We feel great about grabbing one here on the road,” Rhys Hoskins said. “We obviously know that Philly is going to show up and back us the way that they did last week. So we feel good about going home with a win.”