Braves aim to reverse playoff fortunes vs. Nola in Game 3

October 11th, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- The National League Division Series between the Braves and Phillies moves to Philadelphia on Wednesday, becoming a best-of-three matchup to determine which club advances to the NL Championship Series.

In order to avoid the same fate as last year's NLDS, the Braves must solve right-hander Aaron Nola, who also started Game 3 at Citizens Bank Park last October. Philadelphia commandeered a 2-1 series advantage in 2022 after Nola held Atlanta to one unearned run over six innings.

After the Braves took Nola deep three times and scored five runs in an 8-5 win on May 25, they mustered a combined two runs on eight hits with two walks and 13 strikeouts in the Phillies right-hander's other two starts.

"I know he was really good the last time he pitched against us," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He's, again, one of the top pitchers in baseball. Just the assortment that he has, how he can extend games. We've had a few guys that have done OK off him. He's done OK off us, too. He's a tough ride, because he's got so many weapons, and he throws strikes. And he can command his fastball. So you've just got to get in there and fight like we did last night. You've got 27 outs to make something happen."

Perhaps working in the Braves’ favor this time around will be the momentum from Game 2’s thrilling 5-4 comeback victory. Third baseman Austin Riley, who knocked the go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth, has a .412 average and five homers against Nola in his career. NL MVP frontrunner Ronald Acuña Jr., quiet until his two-out, sixth-inning walk sparked the initial rally, has hit .326 with four homers and seven walks vs. Nola.

Until the final three frames on Monday night, Atlanta’s offense was held quiet by a bombardment of high velocity up in the zone from Philadelphia’s bullpen arms and Game 2 starter Zack Wheeler. There's a reason for that, as the Braves’ slugging percentage dropped from .509 on pitches slower than 97 mph to .396 against pitches 97 mph or harder this season.

Don't expect that from Nola, whose M.O. differs from his teammates. His four-seamer (92.7 mph) and sinker (91.8 mph) are well below those radar readings. And while the Phillies’ pitching staff has increased its fastball usage in the NLDS to great effect, Nola will likely continue making his curveball his most-thrown offering (31.6 percent in 2023).

That could be good news for Atlanta, which was the second-best hitting team against curveballs (.341 wOBA) in the Majors, though those numbers were naturally worse compared to fastballs (MLB-best .384 wOBA). As a result, Nola bumped his curveball usage to 36.9 percent in his three starts against the Braves this season. Eleven of the 31 plate appearances ending in a curveball went for a strikeout; Atlanta hit just .207 with a .345 slugging percentage.

"I think it's the command of his fastball," Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. "When he can get the fastball to his glove side, I think that's an indication. Soft contact is an indication. Just the quality of the breaking ball and the use of the changeup. Those are things that he does when he's going good that makes him very effective."

If the Braves want to reverse their fortune against Nola, it could come down to his ability to throw strikes -- something he did a better job at while facing his division rival. Like any pitcher, getting ahead is crucial. Against Atlanta this season, Nola’s numbers were as follows:

Nola ahead: 34.9% (.200/.192/.400, 1 HR)
Even: 44.7% (.276/.276/.517, 2 HR)
Behind: 20.3% (.200/.368/.200, 0 HR)

The 30-year-old Nola is susceptible to the long ball, having surrendered 32 home runs -- third most in the NL. Fourteen of those came when he was behind in the count, accounting for 43.8 percent. The Braves matched the MLB record for most homers in a season in 2023. 

"Just got to get ahead," said Nola, whose 2.09 walks-per-nine-innings was 10th lowest among qualified MLB pitchers. "They're obviously going to have a different approach to me than they do Wheels. Wheels threw great last night, dominant again against those guys. That's what he does against a lot of teams. But I think it comes down to trying to get strike one against these guys and getting ahead and staying ahead.”

Of course, everything could be thrown out the window come first pitch. Due to the familiarity on both sides (3.40 ERA for Nola in 33 career starts vs. Atlanta), it becomes a cat-and-mouse game. It also depends on execution.

“It's just different,” Braves catcher Sean Murphy said. “He's a different guy, but he's also a very good pitcher, an accomplished pitcher. He's different. So the game plan is a little different in what we're trying to do. So it's not better or worse. It's just a different guy, and we have to prepare for that and game plan for it.”