'Humble' Nola becoming Phillies' big-time pitcher

Right-hander tosses 6-plus stellar innings in NLDS Game 3 win over Braves

October 15th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philly faithful were standing and cheering before Phillies manager Rob Thomson reached the foul line on his way to the mound. They kept cheering as Aaron Nola, the career Phillie who was a National League Cy Young Award contender in 2018 by the time he was 25 but hasn’t always been so warmly embraced in this ballpark, stared down at the grass as he walked off in the seventh inning of a 9-1 win over the Braves in Friday's Game 3 that pushed the Phils to the cusp of their first NL Division Series victory in a dozen years.

If Nola heard the cheers at Citizens Bank Park, he didn’t do much to acknowledge them.

That surprised no one.

“That’s vintage Nola, man,” longtime teammate Zach Eflin said. “I think I saw maybe a little wave at the end.”

“He doesn’t want the recognition,” fellow starter Zack Wheeler said. “He just does his thing.”

For years, some folks have questioned whether Nola would develop into a big-game pitcher, suggested by his pedigree as the No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft who made it to the Majors 13 months later. In '18, he topped 200 innings and 200 strikeouts, made the NL All-Star team and finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting.

Since then, Nola has been good, but not as good. In 2021, Nola’s ERA ticked up to 4.63. Hitters have fared better against him in September and October in his career (.721 OPS against) than any other month.

Now that he's 29 and pitching in the postseason for the first time, any questions about Nola are being answered.

Consider Nola's recent work: 

• He delivered a 2.36 ERA and 45 strikeouts in six regular-season starts in September and October as the Phillies pushed for the postseason, holding opponents to a .191/.239/.270 slash line. 

• With a chance to clinch a postseason berth on Oct. 3 in Houston, he held the high-powered Astros scoreless on two hits over 6 2/3 innings, with no walks and nine strikeouts. 

• With a chance to pitch the Phillies into the NLDS, he delivered another 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinals in Game 2 of the best-of-three NL Wild Card Series in his first career postseason start.

“He’s so calm,” Philadelphia catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “This is his first postseason, but watching him pitch, it looks like he’s done it his whole career. He doesn’t ever get too up or too down, he just stays the course. You couple that with the stuff that he has and the command he has -- that’s a good recipe for success.”

On Friday, Nola found success again.

The right-hander pitched six-plus innings and allowed one unearned run on five hits. He walked two batters and struck out six. The lone run came after first baseman Rhys Hoskins dropped a relay throw on what would have been an inning-ending double play in the sixth, which was followed by Michael Harris II's RBI single.

Nola’s night ended after pinch-hitter Orlando Arcia led off the seventh with a single. Cue Thomson’s slow walk to the mound, and the standing ovation from the fans.

“I was just kind of bummed I didn't get that Arcia out there,” Nola said. “He put a big swing on a cutter. I didn't get [the pitch] away enough.

“But it was pretty cool that the fans, they stood up for me right there. It was awesome.”

Said Realmuto: “He deserves every bit of credit that he gets for what he’s doing for this team right now. But him not exactly acknowledging the crowd, that sounds just like him. He’s a quiet, humble guy, and he keeps to himself. But he’s one of the main reasons we are where we are right now.”

Nola joined Cliff Lee (2009) as the only Phillies pitchers with multiple starts of six-plus innings and no earned runs in the same postseason. Nola became the 12th pitcher in MLB history to go six-plus innings with no earned runs in each of his first two career postseason starts. Only three of those instances have come in the past 30 years, putting Nola in company with Cleveland's Corey Kluber ('16) and San Francisco's Matt Cain ('10).

This should not be surprising. Over the past five regular seasons, only Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Wheeler have a higher fWAR than Nola among MLB pitchers.

“He is in the Cy Young conversation every year almost and hasn't had a playoff start to show for it until this year,” Thomson said. “So I'm happy for him.”

“We haven’t necessarily been able to play games in the national spotlight,” Eflin said. “He’s been here since 2015. I’ve been here since 2016. We’ve never got an opportunity to pitch in these important games. He’s so overdue for all this stuff.”

Nola faced an early test that may have changed the course of Game 3 when slugger Matt Olson worked an eight-pitch walk that gave the Braves two runners aboard with one out in the first. Nola calmly retired Austin Riley -- who entered the game with a 1.229 OPS against Nola in 45 career plate appearances -- on a fielder’s choice that should have been a double play. Then, Nola fielded Travis d’Arnaud’s comebacker and threw to first to end the threat.

“We’ve faced him a bunch, and when he’s like that, it's tough,” Riley said. “You’ve got to capitalize on the mistakes; we weren't able to do that tonight.”

In the third, Nola’s teammates took some pressure off with a six-run inning, highlighted by Hoskins’ emphatic bat spike following a three-run homer.

Nola and the Phillies rolled from there.

“It's been a while since we've been in the playoffs here, obviously, and to see the fans like what they were tonight is awesome," Nola said.

So, yes, Nola noticed the ovation. He chose to keep his head down.

“That’s him,” Eflin said. “He’s as humble as it comes. He deserved that moment. He did Aaron Nola walking off the mound, in his own space, humble. It was just incredible what he did tonight.”