There was a time when the prospect of Aaron Nola facing Max Scherzer in a crucial, stretch-run series would quicken the blood of Phillies fans. Now, it chills the blood instead.
Three Augusts ago, Nola and Scherzer went head-to-head in back-to-back, dog-days faceoffs. It was a pair of games that, weeks later, might have decided the division. Nola never pitched better. He stopped a four-game losing streak, won his 15th game, and framed negotiations for the four-year, $45 million contract extension he would sign in February of 2019.
That was then. Scherzer remains dominant. Nola has become ever more ordinary, but he needs to muster an extraordinary start Tuesday when Scherzer and the Dodgers visit to begin a three-game series that could preview the playoffs.
The pressure on Nola is immense. The Phillies are hot, he’s lost his title as the team’s No. 1 pitcher, and, with the Braves surging, every inning matters. Further, the Dodgers average 5.2 runs per game, best in the National League.
On Sunday, Zack Wheeler officially usurped the “Ace” title for the Phillies with a nine-inning shutout of the formerly first-place Mets on Sunday, the day the Phillies retired Roy Halladay’s No. 34.
Nola was supposed to be the next Roy Halladay.
Wheeler’s win swept the Mets, cemented the Phils in first place, and extended their winning streak to eight games. This is their best run since July 29-Aug. 6, 2011, which is almost exactly 10 years ago, which also is the last time the Phillies sniffed the playoffs.
There was a time when Nola’s turn on the mound meant that a ninth straight win was more likely than not, but that was before Billy Ray Cyrus had a hip-hop hit.
Nola is 24-18 with a 3.96 ERA in 68 starts since Lil Nas X’s remix of Old Town Road featuring Cyrus was recorded in March 2019. He’s been good but not great. If the Phillies hope to hold on to first place, and if they hope to be relevant in October, they need him to be great.
A big win Tuesday night over the Dodgers, the defending World Series champions and baseball’s best team, could return Aaron Nola to greatness. He might never be Max Scherzer ... but, to be fair, who is?
Scherzer is a stone-cold ace, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, a Hall of Fame lock, a 36-year-old trade-deadline diamond sent from Washington to Los Angeles to help the Dodgers win a second straight World Series.
Meanwhile, Nola’s 4.49 ERA ranks 43rd among the 50 qualifying starting pitchers (Scherzer, at 2.75, is ninth). He’s managed a “quality start” — at least six innings, no more than three earned runs — in just eight of his 22 outings. Another clunker Tuesday could finally weaken the clubhouse’s confidence in him — confidence established by his dominance over the last eight days of August 2018.
The matchup on Aug. 23 could not have been more dramatic. Nola and Scherzer were Cy Young favorites, along with Mets’ ace Jacob deGrom, who eventually won it.
Nola and Scherzer also were the first starters to face each other with 150 innings and ERAs of less than 2.25 since Sept. 11, 1985. On that date the Cardinals’ John Tudor pitched 10 shutout innings and beat the Mets and Dwight Gooden, who went nine shutout innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter (Jesse Orosco gave up a first-pitch homer to Cesar Cedeno in the top of the 10th).
Thirty-three years later, when Nola faced Scherzer, starters were no longer pitching 19 combined innings. And no, Nola-Scherzer Part I wasn’t as compelling as Tudor-Gooden. But it was great.
Nola’s finest hour
Nola won with eight shutout innings, which he needed, since Scherzer gave up just two runs over seven innings. Nola never stood taller, especially considering the spot the Phillies found themselves in.
The night before, the Phillies’ bullpen imploded in a demoralizing walk-off loss. They were in danger of losing touch with the first-place Braves. The team was sliding.
Nola stopped the slide.
Nola pitched almost as well five days later against the same opponent. He went seven innings and gave up one earned run, while Scherzer lasted five innings and surrendered three earned runs. The Phillies lost, and they never got closer to the Braves than two games, but Nola delivered 15 innings of one-run ball in the two biggest starts of his career.
He hasn’t been the same pitcher since, even as 2018 faded. Nola went 2-3 with a 3.72 ERA in six September starts.
If he ever plans to return to Cy Young form, Tuesday would be good time to start.