PHILADELPHIA -- It had been nine days and just as many games since the Phillies' clubhouse filled with flashes of color and the smoke of victory. By the time the party lights dimmed and the haze faded away, Aaron Nola emerged through a doorway and spoke with a rare smile.
He, the greatest contributor to Philadelphia's unexpected flirtation with first place, was fittingly the reason the Phillies halted their losing streak and went home from 2018's penultimate game at Citizens Bank Park with a 3-0 win over the Braves to improve to 79-82.
"Feels good," Nola said. "I think it felt better for us as a team to get a win."
Nola's seven scoreless frames of two-hit ball capped his breakout season with a 2.37 ERA in 212 1/3 innings. It finished a relatively shaky September -- one that saw Nola allow nine home runs after surrendering only eight in the five months prior -- in the fashion that pushed the Phillies to try to give him as many starts as possible as they made a final run at a division title that eventually slipped away. It was a return to the form that earned Nola his first All-Star nod, several Phillies records and traction in the Cy Young race until just a few weeks ago.
"I think there was at least some debate at the outset of 2018, not in my mind personally but certainly in the minds of a lot of people here in Philadelphia and nationally, [whether] Aaron Nola was a top-of-the-rotation, surefire ace, No. 1 starter," manager Gabe Kapler said. "Obviously, there's no question about that anymore."
After Kapler pinch-hit Wilson Ramos for Nola in the bottom half of a three-run seventh, he told Nola that the right-hander just finished the best season the 43-year-old had ever witnessed -- which is saying something, given that Kapler played with Pedro Martinez. Nola's 2018 season, Kapler said, was "right up there" with the best summers of Phillies legends like Roy Halladay and Steve Carlton. That argument can find backing in the fact that Nola's 0.976 WHIP was the fifth-lowest ever by a qualifying Phillies pitcher.
Then, Kapler's mind raced back six months to Clearwater, Fla., where during his first Spring Training on the job he watched his new ace toss a baseball in a bullpen session. He visualized Nola's upcoming season. What his mind pictured was just as good as the product that Nola would deliver over the course of 33 starts.
"It was a jaw-dropping season," Kapler said. "The movement of the changeup has been a difference maker. I think the command of the fastball inside to hitters has been a difference maker. I think his ability to sense when a hitter is thinking fastball and go to that changeup, that has been a difference maker. And finally, I just think the curveball just keeps getting better. I really do.
"And now we know what we have in Aaron Nola for 2019."
In Nola, the Phillies have a 25-year-old, homegrown stud. Nola deflected that label to Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, two division foes who will likely finish ahead of him in the voting for the league's best pitcher. So what? As he showed again Saturday, Nola can almost single-handedly win a game and, as of now, he can do it for below the going rate for front-line starting pitching.
Nola made $573,000 this year. He will not be a free agent until 2022. That plays well for the Phillies, who will court star free agents like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper in the coming months with a willingness to spend.
By that time, Nola will be enjoying his offseason. He'll take at least a month off after Philadelphia disperses upon the completion of Sunday's season finale. He doesn't know what he'll do after that.
For now, he is most proud of the fact that he made it through a season completely healthy. He did not focus on the numbers. He just grabbed a baseball roughly every fifth day and did things with it the Phillies would like to see him do for a long time. Nola would like the same.
"Keep staying consistent and keep working on my delivery and keep trying to learn more and more about the game," he said about how he can get better. "I think there's always room for improvement. I think there's always room to learn every year. Just try to come out next year and keep doing my job."
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MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Phillies put three on the board in the seventh inning, during which they walked four times and logged two singles. Cesar Hernandez opened the scoring with a bases-loaded single that plated Jose Bautista and Scott Kingery, who slid in to just barely beat a tag at home. Odubel Herrera beat out a double-play ball for an RBI fielder's choice two batters later.
Nola, with eight K's Saturday, joined Grover Cleveland Alexander (1915) as the only Phillies pitchers to strike out 200 or more batters and hold opponents to a batting average of .200 or lower. Nola also became the fourth Phillies righty to have at least 224 strikeouts in a season. The others were Jim Bunning (3x), Alexander (2x) and Curt Schilling (2x).
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Roman Quinn got down the first-base line in 3.50 seconds during his second-inning bunt single. It was the Phillies' fastest single of the season, and tied for the fifth-fastest single in MLB in 2018. Quinn reached a max sprint speed of 30.7 feet per second. Anything faster than 30 is considered elite.
"He's been a real difference maker for us out there," Kapler said.
HE SAID IT
"As creative as he is and as crafty as he is, I can see him developing another pitch. That's just more my confidence and my belief in him that anything's possible, rather than him needing it by any stretch. If he goes out and repeats what he did this year, with the stuff he has this year, you can envision 15 years of dominance." -- Kapler, on Nola
The Phillies' season closes Sunday with a 3:05 p.m. ET game vs. the Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Left-hander Ranger Suarez (1-1, 6.00 ERA) will make his third Major League start and second appearance since being recalled on Sept. 11. He'll oppose Braves right-hander Kevin Gausman, who owns a 5-2 record and 2.80 ERA in nine starts since being traded from Baltimore to Atlanta at the end of July.