PHILADELPHIA -- Two years to the day removed from his Major League debut, Aaron Nola did something in Friday night's 6-1 win over the Brewers that he'd never done in his Major League career. In one trip through the Brewers batting order, he faced nine hitters and struck out eight of
PHILADELPHIA -- Two years to the day removed from his Major League debut, Aaron Nola did something in Friday night's 6-1 win over the Brewers that he'd never done in his Major League career. In one trip through the Brewers batting order, he faced nine hitters and struck out eight of them.
He was so locked in, so focused, he didn't even realize what he'd done.
"Oh. I didn't even know," a nonplussed Nola said when asked about the shutdown stretch that helped tie a career-high with nine strikeouts.
From that one stretch of nine hitters, when eight saw their at-bats come to an abrupt halt preceding a slow, humbling saunter back to the third-base dugout, Nola flashed the advanced get-ahead, stay-ahead, put-em-away stuff often unattainable for a 24-year-old with fewer than 50 career big league starts. It was that pitchability, a combination of command and sequencing, that enticed the Phillies to draft him No. 7 overall in 2014. And it's reappeared in the big leagues.
Of those nine batters that spanned from the final out of the third inning to the second out of the sixth, Nola leaped ahead 0-2 on seven. Major League hitters this year are hitting .165 after an 0-2 count. The Brewers fared even worse.
To begin the fourth, Nola fell behind 2-0 to former Phillies farmhand Domingo Santana and resorted to his bread and butter -- the low and outside corner, where he owns substantial real estate -- and evened the count back to 2-2. He tested the far reaches of the strike zone by tossing a fastball just off the plate called for a ball, then threw the same pitch at 95 mph a few inches closer to the plate and nicked the corner for a called strike three. He did the same thing to end the inning against Hernan Perez. Friday, Nola was elite command personified.
Phillies manager Pete Mackanin and catcher Andrew Knapp all pointed to Nola's changeup, a highly-improved pitch this season, as a game-changer on Friday. He got Travis Shaw with the pitch in the fourth. In the fifth inning, he punched out two batters swinging with the offering. In a five-pitch at-bat to righty Manny Pina to begin the inning, he even threw it for a swinging strike in a 2-2 count, risking running the count full. Pina flailed at it. That's confidence.
Two batters later, he started right-handed shortstop Orlando Arcia with a called fastball at the knees before throwing three straight changeups. Arcia fouled off the first, but whiffed on the next two, one low, the other lower, unhittable in the dirt. In his first 47 Major League starts, Nola averaged a strikeout via the changeup less than once every three starts. By the end of the fifth, he used it to K three of his last five hitters.
Those three changeup strikeouts were a career high for Nola, and it was just the second time he had even rung up multiple hitters with it in any one start. Six swinging strikes with the changeup ranked second-most for any start in his career.
"That right-on-right changeup was pretty devastating for those guys; I think they were pretty concerned with the curveball, then when you throw the changeup in a fastball count, it's tough to hold up," said Knapp, the man with the best view of all.
"He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," Mackanin said.
While that strikeout sequence was unique, it came in the latest in a string of six consecutive quality starts that have become the norm. In them, he holds a 4-1 record, a 1.70 ERA, and has looked every bit the part of a future Phillies ace.
"It's a blast, it's like a video game. I want to get that every day. Every time he pitches there's an opportunity for that," Knapp said.
Ben Harris is a reporter for MLB.com and covered the Phillies on Friday.