Nola's latest postseason gem helps Phils seize 2-0 NLCS lead

October 18th, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- might be the key to Broad Street.

Before the Phillies played their first postseason game this month, catcher J.T. Realmuto said, “The Phillies are best when Nola’s [at] his best.” Basically, when Nola matches Zack Wheeler at the top of the rotation, Philadelphia is a more well-rounded, daunting team. 

Realmuto’s comment felt truer than ever Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, when Nola pitched six scoreless innings in the Phillies’ 10-0 victory over Arizona in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. The win improved the Phils to 6-0 at home this postseason and 28-11 since The Bank opened in 2004.

“Those guys are horses,” Kyle Schwarber said. “The way that these guys are throwing the ball right now, it's been fantastic. And it makes our jobs a lot easier.”

The Phillies are hitting home runs at a record pace this postseason, including three in Game 2. The bullpen is dominating hitters with its filthy stuff. Wheeler is leading the rotation, pitching like one of baseball’s all-time big-game starters. But how much better will everything get if this is who Nola is the rest of the way?

“We like our chances, for sure,” Nola said. “We’ve got to keep putting in the work and competing. We’re going to try our best to do that until the end, right? But we’ve still got a little ways to go. We’ve got a good Arizona team at their home park in a couple days. We’ve got to take it step by step.”

Nola allowed three hits in Game 2. He struck out seven, including three looking on backdoor sinkers and four on curveballs. In between, he threw one of his better changeups of the season.

“He’s continued to be consistent at getting ahead of guys,” Realmuto said. “He's done a good job of mixing his pitches, using both fastballs to righties and lefties, using both sides of the plate. He's really just being unpredictable and getting ahead of guys and being able to put them away when he is ahead.”

Nola is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA in three starts this postseason. He has allowed two runs in 18 2/3 innings, striking out 19 and walking two. The only other pitchers to match or exceed those numbers in any three-game span in a single postseason are the Braves' John Smoltz (1991) and the Rangers' Cliff Lee (2010).

“I just try to follow up Wheels as best as possible,” Nola said. “He sets the tone for us every time he takes the ball out there. He gives us a chance every time he steps on the mound.”

Nola went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in his first two starts of the 2022 postseason, then went 0-2 with a 9.69 ERA over his final three outings, including two against Houston in the World Series. He followed that finish with one of the worst regular seasons of his career, going 12-9 with a 4.46 ERA over 32 starts in 2023 while surrendering a career-high 32 home runs.

Nola will be a free agent after the season, so his walk year was not the best time for him to struggle. But it speaks to his mindset and abilities that he is stepping up his performance at the right time. If the 30-year-old right-hander is feeling pressure to pitch better in a contract year or for a team with a franchise-record payroll and World Series-or-bust expectations, he is not showing it.

“This is definitely a bigger stage, right?” Nola said. “I think the cool thing about our team is we all have fun. We don't look at super-pressure games, super-pressure situations. We like those, but the way everybody meshes with each other, I think it all takes that pressure off. We all pull for each other. Nobody is selfish, as you can probably see in the dugout. I think that’s what makes our team good.”

“It just goes to show the type of competitor he is and the type of person he is,” Wheeler said. “He’s one of the harder-working people on the team. I don’t think he was really nervous about pitching this season with the contract coming up or whatever. But there are some pressures that come along with that. 

“I don’t know if that bothered him or anything. I never spoke to him about it. But I just knew he would come around. We know the type of pitcher that he is, and he’s pitching well.”

It is funny to look back just a few weeks ago. In August, Phillies fans actually debated who should start Game 2 of a postseason series. It was silly to discuss it, because Nola was always the team’s No. 2 starter, even when he struggled.

Nola needs to keep it up for another couple of weeks. The Phillies believe he will. Nola believes he will. He has made some mechanical adjustments and introduced a slide step that has held down the running game.

Nola’s next start would be Game 6 (if necessary) of the NLCS on Monday, but it might not be necessary. Teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series have won 75 of 89 times (84 percent). Only two teams in the past 26 years have rallied from a 2-0 deficit: the 2020 Dodgers vs. the Braves in the NLCS and the 2004 Red Sox vs. the Yankees in the ALCS.

If Nola is needed, he will be ready. If not, he will be lined up to pitch Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 28.