Following a second-half low point on Saturday, Phillies manager Joe Girardi stressed the importance of good pitching, the kind that stymies opposing batters and allows your team to get back in the batter’s box.
“If you don’t pitch,” Girardi lamented, “you don’t have a chance.”
Aaron Nola must’ve heard those words loud and clear.
The 28-year-old tossed 8 2/3 innings in Sunday's series finale at Citizens Bank Park, striking out nine as the Phillies beat the Braves, 2-1, to split the four-game series. Nola's only blemish: a two-out solo home run allowed to Austin Riley in the ninth that ended his outing at 116 pitches (78 strikes).
“As starters, we always want to go deep in the games,” Nola said. “Unfortunately, [it] hadn't happened many times this year with me. My biggest thing is if I stay healthy, I always believe I can do it, so today worked out.”
Nola blanked the Braves for eight-plus innings, mixing in his four-seam fastball, knuckle curve, sinker and changeup. Across his 31 batters faced, he generated 24 first-pitch strikes, just one shy of his career best of 25.
“I think it was really important for all of us,” said Giradi of Nola’s performance. “… Man, he was outstanding again today. Riley was the only hitter that really gave him a little trouble today. But everything was good, and it starts with the location of his fastball. It was really good today.”
While Nola doesn’t possess a particularly devastating fastball from a velocity standpoint, he was able to generate a combined 13 called strikes and whiffs with the pitch, making use of the command he sharpened in his bullpen sessions.
“I think in general, pitching, if your fastball -- if you can command it to both sides, [it] kind of sets up all your other pitches,” Nola said. “So that's what I kind of worked on a lot this past week in my bullpen [session], trying to get that fastball back in sync. So I'm gonna try to keep doing that this week going into the next start.”
Nola’s fastball allowed him to throw his curve with ease, generating an additional 18 called strikes and whiffs on the breaking pitch.
Second baseman Jean Segura knocked his sixth home run of the season in the fourth inning to put the Phillies ahead, while also making some tough stops in the field.
“Jean had a fantastic day all around offensively, defensively,” Girardi said. “… Made three or four really, really tough plays today. He's playing really well.”
In the seventh, Segura helped preserve the lead by robbing a would-be single up the middle from Dansby Swanson. The diving stop kept Austin Riley from advancing past third base.
Nola wound up getting a shallow fly ball to left and a groundout to escape unscathed.
“Segura made a heck of a play, man,” Nola said. “That play was unbelievable. Gave me a chance, any chance to get out of the inning, so that was a big part of the game right there."
Ronald Torreyes added an eighth-inning insurance run with a homer, his career-high fourth of the year as he pushes for more playing time. Ranger Suárez came on for the game’s final out.
The win provided a much-needed jolt of confidence for the Phillies (49-49), who remain four games back of the Mets (52-44) in the NL East. The Phils' homestand continues Monday with the start of a four-game set against another division foe in the Nationals (45-53), losers of four straight.
“Well, I think it was really important that we got a split today,” Girardi said. “I mean, we got to try to keep pace, and we got to make up some ground. You want to win series, but to lose it 1-to-3, it would have been really tough.”
As the Phillies look to make up ground, more performances from a fully healthy Nola will go a long way in the fight for the postseason.
“I expect myself to go deeper into ballgames for the rest of the year,” Nola added. “And [staying healthy] is the biggest thing, because if you do that, then there's always a chance to do something.”