ST. PETERSBURG -- Aaron Nola treats every game the same. He is even-keeled and stoic. He never lets the emotion of the moment bleed into his performance.
But Tuesday’s start against the Rays at Tropicana Field was different. It wasn’t just another game, and Nola felt that, because every game doesn’t demand that you pitch against one of your best friends.
Admittedly dealing with a lot of emotions as he prepared to take the mound, Nola outdueled former Phillies teammate Zach Eflin and turned in one of the best starts of his career in Philadelphia's 3-1 win.
“Honestly, it kind of felt like when I faced my brother, with the emotion and the nerves,” Nola said. “But it was awesome. It was fun facing 'Ef' out there. We were with each other for so long, and he was nasty tonight, too.”
Nola was nastier. He struck out 12 batters, tying a career high, over 7 1/3 innings. He allowed only five hits and walked one. The only run he permitted came on the 104th and final pitch of his fantastic outing: a curveball that Rays shortstop Wander Franco hit the other way for a home run.
The Phillies have won 10 consecutive road games, the franchise’s longest such streak since 1976, when it won 13 straight road games.
Nola has 30 career games with at least 10 strikeouts. That broke a tie with left-hander Cole Hamels for the third-most double-digit-strikeout games by a Phillies pitcher since 1901. Only Steve Carlton (70 games) and Curt Schilling (48) are ahead of Nola on that list.
“He was fantastic. And so was Eflin,” manager Rob Thomson said. “ ... Nola’s stuff was really good.”
Eflin and Nola were teammates for the past seven seasons in Philadelphia before the former signed a three-year deal with Tampa Bay during the offseason. During that time, they forged a bond so tight that Eflin was a groomsman in Nola’s wedding this past December.
“I had more jitters during this game than I did any World Series or playoff game I had last year,” said Eflin, who allowed two runs over seven innings and struck out nine. “But I'm so thankful for Aaron's friendship and the mentorship and what kind of teammate he is.”
The Phillies supported Nola with a run in the second off a two-out RBI double by Alec Bohm, then added a run in the seventh when Bryson Stott laced a run-scoring single through the right side.
That was enough for Nola, who allowed only one man to reach third base through the first seven innings. That situation came about in the third inning after Trea Turner’s 10th error of the season helped put runners on the corners with one out. Nola, however, stayed cool and calm, like he usually is. He escaped the jam by getting Franco to whiff on a knuckle curve, then threw a 95 mph fastball past Luke Raley.
“He threw the ball incredibly, really, from start to finish,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “He had such good command.”
Bryce Harper’s day was another bright spot for the Phillies. He slapped a double the other way, 100 mph off the bat, before coming around to score on Stott’s knock in the seventh. He then launched a ball to deep right field that was mere inches away from going out of the park, which would have ended his streak of 144 plate appearances without a home run. Instead, it hit off of the top of the wall and ended up as a long RBI single in the eighth.
“I think we're starting to see him starting to get the ball up in the air and not as much [on the ground],” Thomson said. “He looks a little bit more comfortable at the plate.”
Harper, for his part, continues to say that he feels good and is just trying to put the bat on the ball. And while he knows everyone is waiting with bated breath for his homer drought to end, he also knew what this game was really about: “Two best friends kind of going at it. It was pretty cool to see.”
Realmuto said he was sure that Nola “had some definite butterflies before this game.”
So, did those butterflies help Nola raise his game on this day?
“I’m not sure,” Nola said. “Maybe.”