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Nola can't climb out of rut vs. rival Mets

Ace righty fans six in four frames, but ERA balloons to 7.45
@ToddZolecki
April 16, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- Nobody seems worried, but nobody has any answers, either. The baffling beginning to Aaron Nola’s season continued Monday night in a 7-6 loss to the Mets in 11 innings at Citizens Bank Park. He allowed five runs on seven hits and three walks in four innings. Nola has

PHILADELPHIA -- Nobody seems worried, but nobody has any answers, either.

The baffling beginning to Aaron Nola’s season continued Monday night in a 7-6 loss to the Mets in 11 innings at Citizens Bank Park. He allowed five runs on seven hits and three walks in four innings. Nola has allowed five or more runs in three consecutive starts. He has a 7.45 ERA this season, which is the highest mark among 78 qualified pitchers in the Majors.

“It’s been a tough go so far,” Nola said.

Nola is not alone. Corey Kluber (6.16 ERA), James Paxton (6.00 ERA), Zack Greinke (5.79 ERA), Noah Syndergaard (5.63 ERA) and Stephen Strasburg (5.40 ERA) are top-shelf pitchers who have struggled in April.

It happens to everybody, but it does not make Nola’s struggles any less frustrating or any less concerning. He entered the season as the one true certainty in the Phillies’ rotation. No matter what happened to everybody else, Nola was expected to roll into the season, make 30-35 starts and win.

“Just got to find a way to get over it,” Nola said. “I'm going to find a way to battle through it. It's tough right now for me.”

So what in the world is going on with Nola, who finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting last year?

“My body feels good,” Nola said. “My arm feels good. I'm healthy. That's the main thing for me. I feel like if I'm healthy I can make strides.”

“No health concerns,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said.

Nola’s fastball averaged 91.9 mph on Monday, which is below his average (92.2 mph) in his first three starts and his average last season (92.7 mph). But then Monday was brutally cold with strong winds that could have affected his feel for the ball. (Syndergaard also pitched, allowing five runs on nine hits in five innings.)

“That's not something that I'm concerned about,” Kapler said about Nola’s velocity. “I'm concerned about his command. His command is his calling card. He's got movement, deception, life, and those things are still there. He just needs to put the ball where he wants to throw it.”

The movement on Nola’s curveball and changeup haven’t changed much from last season, according to Statcast data. Indeed, his command seems to be the issue as he is throwing fewer strikes than at any point in his career. Nola threw first-pitch strikes to only 10 of 22 batters Monday. He has thrown first-pitch strikes only 47.1 percent of the time this season.

If that sounds low, it is. Nola threw first-pitch strikes at a career-high 69.2 percent clip last year.

His career average from 2005-18: 65.1 percent.

The league average this season: 60.4 percent.

Batters are chasing fewer of Nola’s pitches outside the strike zone. They are swinging at fewer first pitches. They are swinging and missing at fewer pitches in general, too.

“I'm concerned that Aaron is not getting where he wants to go,” Kapler said. “If he was sitting right here, I'd say the same thing to him. The flip side of that is the obvious, which is that he has a long track record of success. Not the only good starting pitcher that has had some early-season struggles, and we are going to do everything in our power to help him get back on track. He deserves as much confidence as anybody does. It doesn't mean that it feels good to watch him struggle by any stretch. It's also very true that this is an excellent Major League pitcher that deserves the benefit of the doubt here.”

The Phillies still had a chance to win Monday. Maikel Franco’s two-run homer in the fourth inning tied the game at 5-5. Jean Segura walked with the bases loaded in the eighth to tie the game at 6-6. But with Juan Lagares on second and two outs in the 11th, Michael Conforto smashed a ball off Rhys Hoskins’ glove. Cesar Hernandez fielded the ball and had a play at the plate, but he fired the ball into the turf instead.

“I have to make that play,” Hoskins said.

But everything Monday started with Nola. He pitched so well last season that it seemed like he could never have a run like this. Nola has not struggled this way since he allowed five or more runs in four consecutive starts from June 16 to July 2, 2016. He made three more starts that season before finishing on the injured list with a strained right elbow.

“I feel fine. My body feels fine,” Nola said. “I don't blame it on anything, any of the weather. I didn't make good pitches. A lot of the runs scored with two outs. I need to put guys away with two outs. It's just kind of the main point.”

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .