Aaron Nola was excellent Wednesday night, tying his career-high with 12 strikeouts, and weaving his way through the Yankees’ lineup with a powered-up fastball and always signature curveball. His second start of 2020 was reminiscent of 2018, when Nola emerged as one of the National League’s premier pitchers.
But the only stat that mattered Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park was that Nola pitched six innings of a 3-1 loss, which left the bullpen responsible for the final three outs of a seven-inning doubleheader. Those three outs went as expected.
Entering with the game tied 1-1, Tommy Hunter faced five batters without recording an out, allowed two runs, and left with the bases loaded. Nola’s excellent night was wasted. The Phillies built their bullpen this winter with a shoestring budget as they claimed pitchers off waivers and transitioned starters to relievers. Hunter, who had elbow surgery last summer as a Phillie, was the lone major-league free-agent reliever they signed.
So far, the inexpensive bullpen has been costly. It’s imploded in each of the team’s four losses, and even nearly cost them earlier on Wednesday when they eked out an 11-7 win in the first game of the doubleheader. The Phillies built a lineup that scored 11 runs in seven innings and topped a rotation with Nola and Zack Wheeler, who pitched six strong innings in Wednesday’s first game to win his second straight start.
But the bullpen might be a big enough problem that none of that could matter. The bullpen has allowed 17 runs this season in 16 innings.
“I think it’s really hard to evaluate exactly what we’re going to get moving forward,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Obviously, we want them to turn around. I believe they will turn it around. But they just haven’t had consistent work and it’s hard to be sharp. We’re playing teams that have been playing every day. That’s something we know we have to deal with. But I believe we’re going to get better. I know [pitching coach Bryan Price] believes we’re going to get better. And we’ll get it done.
Girardi lifted Nola after 88 pitches as the Phillies did not want to push the starter too deep in his second start of the season and after a 12-day layoff. But what he gave them should have been enough. He allowed one run on three hits and did not issue a walk. His fastball touched 95 mph as he regained the velocity he had last season.
“He was brilliant tonight against a very tough lineup,” Girardi said. “It’s unfortunate it was only his second start and we had to get him out. But he was as good as I’ve seen him. The first time I really saw Aaron throw -- I don’t know what year it was -- but it was against the Boston Red Sox. He went eight or nine innings and gave up one run and left tied. I was like, ‘Man, can this kid pitch.’ I think that’s what we saw tonight -- similar Aaron Nola to what I saw that day. And it’s really good.”
Hunter’s fastball averaged just 89.6 mph on Wednesday, nearly 5 mph slower than it was last season. Not only did Hunter have elbow surgery last July, but he was stricken this June by the coronavirus. It’s worth wondering how much of a toll both of those have taken on him as he rushed to ramp up for a 60-game season. He allowed back-to-back singles and an RBI double, then hit a batter and gave up an RBI single before being lifted.
“I believe everyone’s velocity is going to go up a little bit as they get some more innings and as they get stronger and get to a point where it’s like six weeks of spring training,” Girardi said. “Some guys will go up even after that. But I don’t think our guys are quite at full strength. I don’t think any players are at this point just because of the shortened spring training and us getting the season going.”
Wheeler allowed three runs -- two of which were earned -- in six innings. He has won his first two starts with the Phillies and has allowed just three earned runs in his first 13 innings since joining the Phillies last offseason on a five-year, $118 million contract. Over his last eight starts, Wheeler has a 1.87 ERA in 53 innings since Aug. 30, 2019.
He allowed two early runs Wednesday, but then lassoed the challenging Yankees’ lineup and forced weak contact. Wheeler picked up double plays in the fourth and fifth innings and has induced six ground-ball double plays in his first two starts. No other pitcher in baseball who has made at least two starts entered Wednesday with more than four.
There was much attention made to Wheeler’s power arm and strikeout rate when the Phillies added him last December, but he’s shown the makings in his first two starts of being a complete pitcher. He’s more than just gas.
“I’ve done it a couple times in the minor leagues,” Wheeler said of the seven-inning doubleheaders, introduced in the majors for this unique season. “Those were the ones that you try to go out there and get an easy complete game. I think they’re good just for this year, keeping guys safe just first and foremost. I think this year it’s a good idea.”
The Phillies played the first game of the doubleheader as the “road” team after the game was moved from Yankee Stadium before they were the “home” team for the nightcap. But they seemed comfortable as the visitors.
They either had an RBI or a run scored in Wednesday’s first game from all nine spots in the lineup. Realmuto and Bryce Harper homered. Scott Kingery, Rhys Hoskins, and Didi Gregorius singled in runs. And Phil Gosselin drew a bases-loaded walk, two innings after hitting a double. The Phillies entered the season believing they had a deep lineup. And that’s how it looked in the first game Wednesday.
But the lineup scored just one run on three hits in the second game as the Yankees stymied them with five relievers in a bullpen game.
Wheeler, like Nola did later, exited the first game after pitching six innings. He left with an eight-run lead but watched the bullpen make a blowout interesting.
Austin Davis recorded just one out, allowed four runs on four hits, the last of which came on a towering three-run homer by Judge. Trevor Kelley did not fare much better, allowing two hits and picking up one out before Girardi called on Hector Neris. The Phillies had to use their closer for the final out of the game after they started the inning ahead, 11-3. The Phillies could have used Neris in the seventh inning of the second game if they did not have to burn him to protect a blowout.
“When you have a chance to win the game, you better win the game,” Girardi said.