ST. LOUIS -- Aaron Nola remained in character, even throughout the champagne-soaked party in the visitors’ clubhouse Saturday night at Busch Stadium.
Nola stood in the corner as his teammates hopped up and down and celebrated their trip to the NL Division Series. He watched and smiled.
Nola cemented his status in Phillies’ lore with a brilliant performance in a 2-0 victory over the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NL Wild Card Series. It clinched the best-of-three series to send the Phils to Atlanta to play the Braves in the postseason for the first time since the 1993 NL Championship Series.
Nola pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings against St. Louis, striking out six and allowing just four hits and one walk. It was another momentous performance for a pitcher who, five days earlier, delivered 6 2/3 scoreless innings in a 3-0 victory in Houston as the Phillies clinched their first trip to the postseason since 2011.
That’s two brilliant starts in two clinchers in six days.
That’s big-game pitching right there.
Nola is a big reason why the Phillies will go to Atlanta confident they can hang with -- and beat -- the Braves. He is a big reason why Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson could ask J.T. Realmuto a very important question before they started to spray champagne in the clubhouse.
How many more wins until they are World Series champions?
“Eleven more, Thomper,” Realmuto said.
“Atta babe,” Thomson said.
“I can promise you, nobody’s excited to play the Phillies right now,” Realmuto said later. “We’re in a good spot.”
The Phillies are confident because they got two stellar performances from Zack Wheeler in Game 1 and Nola in Game 2.
Nola dominated Game 2.
“He’s special,” Wheeler said. “Awesome pitcher. He’s stepped up big for us both times right when we [absolutely] needed him.”
Nola downplayed his role, of course.
“I just wanted to -- obviously, I knew what the stakes were, but I wanted to stay within myself and not try to do anything I haven't done all year and just pitch my game,” he said.
Cardinals center fielder Lars Nootbaar reached second on a single and an error to start the first inning. An early run can mean everything in a game like this. Phillies fans no doubt remember the first-inning run the Cardinals scored against Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. But Nola struck out Albert Pujols swinging and Paul Goldschmidt looking to help him get out of the inning.
It set the tone.
Realmuto noticed something early and he started to call more curveballs than planned. Nola threw 32 curveballs. He threw a season-high 35 on May 26 and June 30.
“Curveball was working early on, and I felt like I kind of was hanging it a little bit after the first few innings, but they were hitting it right to some guys and hit a few right to [Alec] Bohm,” Nola said. “Bohm had an outstanding game in the field.”
Bohm snared Yadier Molina’s line drive down the third-base line in the third and Nolan Arenado’s line drive down the line in the fourth to protect the 1-0 lead Bryce Harper had provided in the second with a monstrous home run to right field. Pujols, playing in the final game of his career, singled to left in the sixth, but Nola struck out Goldschmidt swinging on a 2-2 cutter and Arenado swinging on a 1-2 fastball to end the inning.
“That was the biggest moment in the game,” Realmuto said.
José Alvarado, Seranthony Domínguez and Zach Eflin handled the rest.
But what a week for Nola, who has been unappreciated in Philadelphia and elsewhere. He has pitched as well as some of the best pitchers in baseball over the past five years. He ranks third in bWAR since 2018, behind only Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. He ranks fifth in fWAR behind Scherzer, deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Wheeler.
Nola has a 28.5% strikeout rate and just a 6.5% walk rate during that span. The 22.1% differential is 11th best in the Majors in that span (minimum 500 innings), directly behind Clayton Kershaw.
“Noles, he is just so calm and relaxed all the time,” Kyle Gibson said. “No situation ever gets him fired up. He just has a demeanor about him that just allows him to move on from a bad start to really kind of smell the end right there and get through the inning. It’s just a special trait to have. And when you have him and Wheeler at the front of the rotation, and they’re both like that, you can do a lot of things.
“You’ve got to give a guy a chance to be in big games. This is the first time in the playoffs for him. He catches a lot of criticism for really not a whole lot of reasons. He’s as good of a pitcher as there is.”
The Phillies will fly to Atlanta on Sunday. They will play Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Game 3 will be Friday at Citizens Bank Park.
Nola could pitch that game.
“It’s just too much poetry in baseball,” Rhys Hoskins said. “Here we are again. [Shoot], we know Noles can do it. We’ve seen it twice. Let’s get him on the mound again.”