Nola battles, but Phils lose ground in WC race

Right-hander strikes out 8 over 7 innings in 200th career start

September 18th, 2022

ATLANTA -- In his 200th career start, gave the Phillies everything he had, but a late comeback fell short in a 4-3 loss to the Braves on Saturday night at Truist Park.

As the margin for error shrinks, every mistake becomes more magnified, and so far, the Philadelphia pitching staff has struggled with containing one of Atlanta's biggest stars: Ronald Acuña Jr. The right fielder drove in all of the Braves' runs with a two-run homer and a two-run double in the third and fourth innings, respectively, off Nola.

"He showed up," Bryce Harper said of Acuña. "I feel like every time I come here, he shows up pretty well. It's a great team over there. That's a team that we could possibly face in the first round."

That potential Wild Card Series showdown is very much up in the air, however, as -- for the second straight night -- the Phillies' loss was compounded by both the Padres and Brewers winning their respective games. Philadelphia holds a half-game lead over San Diego for the No. 5 seed and is only two games clear of Milwaukee.

Nola might not have had his best stuff on the mound, but the right-hander was still able to go seven innings, allowing four runs on seven hits and two walks while fanning eight batters. After Acuña's double in the fourth, Nola retired 11 straight.

"He battled all night long," interim manager Rob Thomson said. "He kept going. He gave us seven solid innings. He kept us in the game, fought like hell and I'm proud of him."

Nola persevered against the Braves and allowed his team an opportunity to come back while giving the bullpen an always appreciated rest. But, most importantly, the 29-year-old is continuing to show that he can battle through adversity. He's given up three or more runs in 13 of his 29 starts this season. The key for Nola has been his resiliency. He's thrown fewer than four innings in a start just once this season,  not including his two-inning outing against the Nationals on Sept. 11 that was disrupted by a 3-hour, 36-minute rain delay.

"I think the young guys on the staff, they learn a lot by watching those two guys, Nola and [Zack] Wheeler, and how they grind and how they compete," Thomson said.

The Phillies are chasing their first playoff berth since 2011, and for Nola and Wheeler, it would be their first time reaching the postseason. Nola has the second-most starts by any active pitcher who has never made a playoff appearance, and Wheeler is third (192).

Wheeler is set to return on Wednesday against the Blue Jays after dealing with right forearm tendinitis -- and Philadelphia's formidable rotation is returning to full force.

"That's our ace, that's our guy," Harper said about Wheeler. "To be able to get him back is gonna be huge for us."

Every team wants to be at full strength heading into the postseason, and the Phillies are on the cusp of replenishing their depth chart. Thomson said that Rhys Hoskins, who has been sidelined for the last three games with a bruised right hand, was available off the bench on Saturday and the hope is that Hoskins is in the starting lineup for Sunday's series finale. Along with Hoskins, Nick Castellanos is progressing as he recovers from a right oblique injury.

With Harper beginning to get into a groove after returning from a left thumb fracture -- going 1-for-4 but hitting three balls with an exit velocity of at least 93 mph against the Braves -- and Hoskins and Castellanos potentially coming back into the lineup, the Phillies are inching toward where they want to be health-wise.

But as the offense continues to recuperate, the pitching staff has the same goal in mind: Hold down the fort until the bats get going.

"It's all about keeping the runs at a minimum, trying to put as many zeros up as we can. That's the goal every outing," Nola said. "Right now, everything is crucial. Obviously, trying to make that playoff push. Every game counts, every game matters."