PHILADELPHIA -- Aaron Nola's second and third pitches Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park should have provided the Nationals plenty of warning.
It was going to be a long night for the reigning World Series champions.
Nola spun nasty back-to-back curveballs to Trea Turner in the top of the first inning of a 6-0 victory over the Nationals, moving the Phillies (16-15) above .500 for the first time this season.
Turner flailed badly at an 0-1 curveball, which broke sharply down and out of the zone. Nola and catcher J.T. Realmuto liked Turner’s reaction to the pitch so much that Nola threw the same pitch in the same spot again. Turner again flailed badly at the pitch for a three-pitch strikeout, setting the tone for the night -- and the Phillies are hoping their recent play is setting the tone for the rest of the month.
The Phillies have won seven of their last eight games. They look more than capable of making the postseason for the first time since 2011.
“I don’t, personally, feel like we’re even hot,” Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen said. “I just feel like we’re doing the job. We’re doing what we need to do. I know what it feels like when everyone is on the same page and we don’t even have to talk. We’re getting there. I’m feeling like this month, for us, is going to be a big month.”
If Nola pitches like he pitched Tuesday, it will go a long way.
“Every game matters a lot right now,” Nola said. “Every game is a tough one. But we’re up for it.”
Nola allowed two hits and three walks while striking out nine over eight scoreless innings to improve to 4-2 with a 2.45 ERA. He kept the Nationals guessing for much of the night. The Phillies' ace mixed his pitches well, throwing his curveball (34 times), four-seam fastball (33 times) and changeup (31 times) almost equally. He threw his sinker 15 times.
He got 20 swings and misses, which tied for the third-most in a start in his career. He got 12 of those with his curveball, tied for his second-most in a start.
"This is the best I think I’ve seen Nola throw,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “Really.”
“You could see that his stuff was really good right from the beginning,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “Even the first fastball he threw. It started off the plate and came back. I had a good feeling after watching him throw breaking balls to Trea.”
Alec Bohm hit a solo home run to left field against left-hander Patrick Corbin in the fifth inning to hand the Phillies a 1-0 lead. Bohm’s RBI double to right-center field in the sixth extended it to 3-0. McCutchen provided the dagger, crushing a three-run home run to left field to make it 6-0. McCutchen is batting .329 (24-for-73) with five homers, 19 RBIs and a .939 OPS in his last 17 games.
The offense is clicking. Nola is clicking. The Phillies are winning.
They are having fun, too. McCutchen’s spin at home plate following Scott Kingery’s walk-off homer Saturday night against the Braves has been played on a loop on Phanavision after the Phils won the past two nights.
It is becoming a thing.
“That’s ‘Breakdancing for Dummies’ right there,” McCutchen joked.
But the Phillies hope to see more of McCutchen’s moves in the coming weeks, because it would mean they are winning.
They are entering September playing good baseball. They are scoring runs in bunches. Their starting pitching has been solid. Their revamped bullpen should be better. They would qualify for the eight-team National League postseason field if the season ended Tuesday, but they would like to win the NL East, where they sit three games behind the Braves.
The Phils entered the previous two Septembers in the postseason mix, but they faded both times. The 2018 Phillies entered September only two games out of first place in the NL East, but they were struggling by that point, losing 13 of their previous 21 games. They finished 80-82.
The 2019 Phillies entered September 3 1/2 games out of the second NL Wild Card spot, but they also started their slide entering the month and finished 81-81.
“For sure,” Nola said, asked if this year feels different. “We’re obviously still in it. Not that we weren’t last year, but I just think we have a solid group of guys that have experienced the postseason a lot. Older guys. There’s just something to be said about how we’re playing right now, especially how we’re throwing the ball and how we’re hitting the ball.”