ATLANTA -- The Phillies had Aaron Nola on the mound on Thursday at SunTrust Park, and they felt good about it.
Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin pitched them to victories against the Braves on Tuesday and Wednesday, setting up a potential sweep that would keep their faint postseason hopes alive. But Nola allowed five runs in five-plus innings in a 5-4 loss to Atlanta that dropped them four games behind the Brewers for the second National League Wild Card, with 11 games to play. The Phillies’ chances to win that second berth have dropped, from 1.6 percent to 0.6 percent, according to FanGraphs.
“I’m not going out there to try to lose,” Nola said. “I’m going out there and trying to compete. You know, I’m leaving balls over the plate, and guys are taking good swings on it. I know the importance of it. I know where the team’s at and what we need to do to get where we need to be. I’m not going out there thinking about all that -- why this, why that, it doesn’t change my mindset.”
There will be plenty of reasons why the Phillies fall short of the postseason. The organization is pointing to injuries to the bullpen, Andrew McCutchen, Jake Arrieta and others. The injury cost is real. The Phillies lost 5.47 WAR because of injuries, according to ManGamesLost.com. The Yankees (15.54), Astros (8.52), Dodgers (8.01) and Twins (5.89) have suffered worse losses. The Dodgers have clinched the NL West, the Yankees and Astros could win the AL East and AL West titles as early as Thursday, and the Twins entered Thursday with a four-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central.
But there are other reasons the Phillies need a miracle to win the second Wild Card. They have not won with Nola on the mound since Aug. 20 in Boston. The Phillies have lost each of his last six starts, which ties the second-longest winless streak of Nola’s career. He had a career-high seven-start winless streak from June 11 to July 23, 2016.
“I’m kind of shocked, actually,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “That’s about it. I had no idea. Definitely, that’s tough. He goes out there and puts his heart out there every single day for us. He’s our guy. Sometimes guys are going to go through stretches like that. It’s just part of the game.”
Nola is 0-3 with a 4.84 ERA in his current six-start stretch, and he has a 6.14 ERA in four starts this month. He went 2-3 with a 3.72 ERA in six starts last September, which is noteworthy, because he had a 2.10 ERA in his first 27 starts last season.
“I feel fine. My body is healthy,” he said. “Could have easily gone 6-0. It’s baseball. I haven’t been the best this month, obviously. I’ve given up a good bit of runs. Home runs. I haven’t really shut the other team down in a few games. Had a couple bad games where I’ve given up four or five runs. It’s hard to win those games for sure when you’re giving up those kind of runs.”
Ronald Acuña Jr. blasted an 0-2 fastball on the inside corner for a two-run home run into the second deck in left field in the third inning to give the Braves a 2-0 lead. The Phillies tied the score in the top of the fifth, but Nola allowed two more runs in the bottom of the frame to make it 4-2. The Braves had runners on second and third with one out when Freddie Freeman hit a one-out single to right field that scored two runs.
Freeman began the day 9-for-41 with one home run, seven walks and five strikeouts in his career against Nola. Manager Gabe Kapler said they never considered pitching around him with first base open.
“Aaron wants to go after every hitter,” Kapler said. “It's something we talk about pretty frequently. He feels like he can beat any hitter. We feel like he can beat any hitter. He had a history of beating Freddie Freeman. At that point in the game, it felt like the right thing for Aaron and the club to left him go after Freddie.”
Nola never considered it, either.
“I don’t think that’s the turning point in the game, not walking Freddie,” Nola said.
After Austin Riley hit a solo homer to right in the sixth to make it 5-3, the Phillies threatened in the eighth but scored only one run. They open a three-game series against the Indians in Cleveland on Friday night. From there they play a five-game series in four days against the Nationals in Washington.
“Keep batting, keep going,” Harper said.