PHILADELPHIA – Aaron Nola may be the key to Broad Street.
Before the Phillies played their first postseason game this month, catcher JT Realmuto said, “The Phillies are best when Nola [at] His best.” Basically, when Nola matches up with Zack Wheeler at the top of the rotation, Philadelphia is a more well-rounded and tough team.
Realmuto’s commentary rang truer than ever Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, when Nola pitched six scoreless innings in the Phillies’ 10-0 win over Arizona in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. The win improves the Phils to 6-0 at home this postseason and 28-11 since the 2004 opener.
“These guys are horses,” Kyle Schwarber said. “The way these guys are throwing the ball now, it’s been great. It makes our job a lot easier.”
“We definitely like our chances,” Nola said. “We’ve got to keep working and competing. We’ll do our best to do it until the end, right? But we still have a ways to go. We’ve got a good Arizona team on their home court in a couple of days. We’ve got to take it one step at a time.”
Nola allowed three hits in Game 2. He struck out seven, including three looks on backdoor sinkers and four on curveballs. In the middle, he threw one of his best changes of the season.
“He just keeps getting ahead of guys,” Realmuto said. “He does a good job of mixing up his pitches, using fastballs left and right, using both sides of the plate. He’s really unpredictable and gets ahead of guys and is able to put them away when he gets ahead.”
Nola is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA in three starts this season. He allowed two runs in 18 2/3 innings, striking out 19 and walking two. The only other pitchers to match or exceed these numbers in any span of three games in a single postseason are the Braves’ John Smoltz (1991) and the Rangers’ Cliff Lee (2010).
“I’m just trying to continue the Wheels program as best I can,” Nola said. “He sets our tone every time he takes the ball out there. He gives us an opportunity every time he steps on the mound.”
Nola went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in his first two appearances in the 2022 postseason, then went 0-2 with a 9.69 ERA over his final three appearances, 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 giving up a career-high 32 home runs.
Nola will be a free agent after the season, so his rookie year was not the best time for him to struggle. But what indicates his mentality and abilities is that he intensifies 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 record payroll and World Series expectations or go bust, he’s not showing it.
“This is definitely a bigger stage, isn’t it?” Nola said. “I think the great thing about our team is that we all have fun. We don’t look at super-pressure games, or super-pressure situations. We like those things, but the way everyone communicates with each other, I think it all takes that pressure off. We all do.” “We pull for each other. Nobody’s selfish, as you can probably see in the dugout. I think that’s what makes our team good.”
“It just shows the type of competitor he is and the type of person he is,” Wheeler said. “He’s one of the hardest-working guys in the team. I don’t think he was really nervous about pitching this season with the contract coming up or anything. But there’s some pressure that comes with that.”
“I don’t know if it bothers him or anything. And I never talked to him about it. But I just knew it was coming. We know the type of pitcher he is, and he pitches well.”
It’s funny to look back just a few weeks ago. In August, Phillies fans were already debating who should start Game 2 of their postseason series. It was a silly thing to discuss, because Nola was always the No. 2 player on the team, even when he was struggling.
Nola needs to keep this up for another two weeks. The Phillies believe he will. Nola thinks he will. He made some mechanical adjustments and introduced a slide step that got the running game going.
Nola’s next start will be Game 6 (if necessary) of the NLCS on Monday, but that may not be necessary. Teams that lead 2-0 in a best-of-seven series have won 75 of 89 times (84 percent). Only two teams in the past 26 years have been able to recover from a 2-0 deficit: the 2020 Dodgers vs. the Braves in the NLCS and the 2004 Red Sox vs. Yankees in the ALCS.
If Nola is needed, he will be ready. If not, he will be lined up to play Game 2 of the World Series on October 28.
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