The Phillies have been waiting for the real Aaron Nola to stand up since the start of the season.
Sure he had been good in fits and a few starts through his first nine outings, but the Phillies want and need to see the pitcher who finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting last season.
They want and need the guy who pitched six innings or more and allowed two runs or fewer in 22 of 33 starts last year. They want the guy with pinpoint command on his late-moving fastball, the guy with the knee-buckling curveball, and the guy who can mix in an occasional changeup just to mess with a hitter’s mind.
The Phillies want and need the guy they saw Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park during their 2-1 win over the Colorado Rockies.
Nola created an immediate ballpark buzz in the top of the first inning and not just because he struck out the top of the Rockies’ lineup in order. It was the way he did it.
Charlie Blackmon went down looking. Trevor Story went down looking. David Dahl went down looking. Nine of Nola’s first 13 pitches were strikes and they were such good strikes that the Rockies’ hitters attempted to swing only twice. They missed both times.
As the Phillies watched from the field and from the dugout, they knew they had seen this guy before. This was 2018 Aaron Nola.
“Yes, and not just the 2018 version, but the very best of the 2018 version,” manager Gabe Kapler said.
J.T. Realmuto said he could see it coming before the first pitch.
“Really, I could tell in the bullpen,” the Phillies catcher said. “His stuff was extremely explosive in the first inning. I don’t think he missed a spot in the first inning. His stuff was jumping out of his hands.”
It kept jumping for the rest of the afternoon. Nola finished with 12 strikeouts, which matched his career high. It was the first time this season, however, that he reached double-digit strikeouts.
“That’s what I remember when I was with the Nats, facing that,” Bryce Harper said after contributing a monstrous first-inning home run to the victory. “It’s getting hot out there and he’s from Baton Rouge, so he likes pitching in hot weather. That was Noles being Noles.”
Nola, who had lasted just three innings and thrown 84 pitches in a miserable outing on an equally miserable night Monday against Milwaukee, did not try to dispel the theory that he pitches better when the weather is warmer.
“I’ve always liked the heat," Nola said. "It is what I grew up on. It definitely felt [warmer] today than it did five days ago. But it is baseball. Anything happens.
"That was the first time I’ve ever thrown 80-something pitches in three innings. But things can change really quick. You’ve always got to trust what you’re doing and keep working hard through the ups and the downs, and that is kind of what I’ve been doing.”
Kapler believes Nola’s even-tempered demeanor will contribute to the pitcher’s quest to be great in the long run and it is definitely an attribute in a season that covers six months and 162 games.
“He doesn’t cry in his soup,” Kapler said. “He’s not thinking about the last outing he had. He’s already on to the next one. The reason that we saw him come out like lightning today is because of the work he did between starts. It’s that simple, and the consistency of that works.”
Kapler thought a missed strike by home-plate umpire Ed Hickox in the top of the fifth forced Nola to throw eight more pitches than he should have in that inning, and if you look at the 1-2 pitch to Blackmon there is no question the manager is right.
Blackmon reached on an infield single after the missed call and Trevor Story followed with a single before Nola struck out Dahl for the third straight time to escape the inning.
“It was a strike, but stuff happens like that,” said Nola, who could be seen heading for the dugout after the pitch to Blackmon. “I threw eight more pitches after that, but I ended up getting out of the inning.”
Ultimately it meant that Nola’s pitch count was at 99 instead of 91 after six innings. Still, Kapler felt good enough about what he was seeing from his ace that he sent Nola back out for the seventh.
It did not go well. First, he fell behind 3-0 to Tony Wolters, the Rockies’ No. 8 hitter. It was only the third time all game Nola ran a three-ball count. Wolters lifted a 3-2 fastball off the right-field wall for a triple and pinch-hitter Ryan McMahon followed with an RBI double on a hanging breaking ball to end Nola’s outing.
The bullpen duo of Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez teamed to get out of the sixth inning without allowing another run and Hector Neris recorded the first two-inning save of his career by retiring all six batters he faced.