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Phillies count on struggling Aaron Nola to keep them from brink of elimination

The erstwhile No. 1 starter ranks 19th among 21 National League pitchers who qualify for the ERA title. But in his final regular-season start, he can hold off the Braves’ division-title march.

Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola will make his last scheduled regular-season start Wednesday night in Atlanta.
Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola will make his last scheduled regular-season start Wednesday night in Atlanta.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Leave it to Brad Miller, fill-in first baseman and buyer of the lucky bamboo, to succinctly summarize the Phillies’ dire straits.

“We have to win out,” he said. “That’s pretty much it.”

Yep, pretty much. That’s what it boils down to after a 2-1 muting Tuesday night in the opener of a three-game showdown in Atlanta. The Phillies are 3½ games behind the division-leading Braves with five games remaining. Any combination of three Braves wins or Phillies losses will clinch Atlanta’s fourth NL East title in a row.

And so, the Phillies turn their lonely eyes to Aaron Nola. The erstwhile No. 1 starter is No. 19 among 21 National League pitchers who qualify for the ERA title, with a 4.64 mark that is nearly a full run higher than his career ERA (3.67).

Nola’s peripheral numbers indicate that he has been unlucky. His FIP (fielding independent pitching, which measures a pitcher’s effectiveness at preventing homers, walks, and hit by pitches, and recording strikeouts) is 3.38, 10th among qualified NL pitchers. Likewise, his hard-hit rate (37.4%) is lower than each of the last two seasons.

But Nola has had trouble putting hitters away. He has given up 76 two-strike hits, tied for the second-most in baseball. Nola’s fly-ball (27.4%) and home-run rates (3.6%) are also well above his career averages (20% and 2.8%, respectively), a development that a rival scout recently labeled “concerning.”

There will be time, though, to dissect Nola’s season. The Phillies need him to deliver a quality start Wednesday night to keep them from the brink of elimination.

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The rundown

When Matt Vierling’s drive clanged off the glove of Braves leftfielder Eddie Rosario, it seemed like the break the Phillies needed. But as Matt Breen writes, it wasn’t enough to spark a ninth-inning comeback.

The Phillies recalled Alec Bohm from triple A to be a right-handed hitter off the bench. After struggling for most of the season, Bohm said he “kind of just relaxed” in the minors.

In preparation for Tuesday night’s game, we did the math on the Phillies’ playoff scenarios and explained why they really needed to sweep the Braves.

Important dates

Tonight: Nola faces Braves ace lefty Max Fried, 7:20 p.m.

Tomorrow: Kyle Gibson vs. Atlanta righty Ian Anderson, 7:20 p.m.

Friday: Ranger Suárez vs. Marlins ace Sandy Alcántara, 7:10 p.m.

Saturday: The Phillies continue their series in Miami, 6:10 p.m.

Sunday: Season finale vs. Marlins, 3:10 p.m.

Stat of the day

Entering Tuesday night, the Phillies had the lowest batting average in baseball against fastballs (.247). They only put six heaters in play against Braves starter Charlie Morton, who held them to three hits.

But Morton stayed true to the scouting report by throwing nearly as many curveballs (41) as fastballs (45). He got seven swings and misses with each pitch and 16 overall.

“The curveball is one of the premier pitches for him and in the game, honestly,” Miller said. “It’s one of the best right-handed curveballs I’ve seen.”

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: Hi Scott and Matt. My question concerns the rotation this week vs. Atlanta. As well as Ranger Suárez is pitching (I consider him No. 2, behind Zack Wheeler), shouldn’t he be penciled in to start Thursday’s game vs. the Braves? I would much prefer him rather than Gibson, who I personally consider mediocre. Thanks for all your columns and Extra Innings this baseball season. I looked forward to it Monday thru Friday. — David C., via email

Answer: Thanks, David. And thanks very much for reading.

Girardi has been asked several times over the last few days about the possibility of flip-flopping Gibson and Suárez on Thursday and Friday. Thus far, he says he’s keeping the status quo. We will take him at his word. But I do wonder if he changes his mind if the Phillies get to Thursday in need of a win to avoid being eliminated because, as you note, Suárez is pitching very well. As Girardi likes to say, stay tuned.