ST. LOUIS -- It had been 342 days since Aaron Nola dominated the Cardinals in Game 2 of the 2022 NL Wild Card Series. It was a masterful performance at Busch Stadium that punched the Phillies’ ticket to the NLDS and ultimately the World Series.
It was Nola’s second brilliant start that week. He also pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings five days earlier in Houston to help clinch a postseason berth.
The Phillies hope that version of Nola returns soon. He allowed three runs (two earned) in 4 2/3 innings in Friday night’s 5-4 victory over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, giving them a 2 1/2-game lead over the Cubs for the No. 1 NL Wild Card with 15 games to play. His defense extended some innings, but he's still lacking his typical sharpness to pitch deep into games.
“It sucks,” Nola said about his early exit. “The bullpen is coming in too early when I’m pitching. I want to save those guys, especially at this time of the year. You don’t ever want to go five or below. It’s just the way it’s been the past few outings. I hope it turns around.”
Phillies manager Rob Thomson said he trusts Nola will return to form.
“Aaron Nola is a big-game pitcher,” he said.
His teammates believe Nola will, too.
“His track record, he’s done it before, and we believe in him,” Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos said. “He’s our teammate, every time he goes out on the bump, we believe that he’s going to give us a chance to win. Even though he didn’t have his best ‘stuff’ today, we won today’s game. He kept us in the game.”
Nola has pitched 4 2/3 or fewer innings in three consecutive starts for the first time since June 11-26, 2016, when he made four consecutive starts of 4 2/3 or fewer innings. He struck out one batter Friday for only the second time in his career. He tied a season low with five swings and misses.
The Cardinals reached base three times on infield hits and twice on infield errors, including one by Nola in the fourth that led to an unearned run. Nola found himself in trouble a lot. His pitch count piled up, so with runners on first and second and two outs in the fifth, Thomson pulled him from the game.
But the Phillies never trailed. Castellanos hit a three-run homer in the first inning as the Phillies took a 4-0 lead. Castellanos flied out to the warning track in right-center field in the fourth.
They were good signs for Castellanos, who has been struggling recently.
“Hit and miss,” he said about his recent play.
It has been a season of extremes. Castellanos batted .316 with 12 home runs, 54 RBIs and an .874 OPS through July 2, when he made the NL All-Star team. It was a tremendous accomplishment for Castellanos, who rebounded from a difficult 2022.
He batted .122 with two homers, six RBIs and a .349 OPS in 22 games from July 4-30. He rebounded to hit .293 with eight homers, 23 RBIs and an .860 OPS in 27 games in August.
Then in his first 13 games this month, he batted .192 with one homer, seven RBIs and a .573 OPS. Thomson on Sept. 9 put Castellanos eighth for the first time since his second full season with Detroit.
“I’d probably say, if I had to grade myself, probably like a C+, B-, doing my job, taking a full season of at-bats, staying healthy,” Castellanos said. “Am I thrilled about every aspect of my season personally? No, because I know that I hit periods of inconsistency, but still, I’m always a person that’s going to strive to get better. And also, I have an unhealthy knack for never really being satisfied with anything that I do.
“Even after my ‘21 season, I remember driving home from Cincinnati with [his wife] Jess, just talking about all the areas I [messed] up in.”
People forget those things with big postseason performances. October is just around the corner. There is time for Nola and Castellanos to get on track. Castellanos might’ve taken that step forward Friday. Nola hopes it begins next week.
Just as long as it happens.