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Dombrowski: ‘Aaron Nola’s a better pitcher than what he’s been’

Also, the Phillies will give Spencer Howard another start Monday night vs. Nationals.

The Phillies' Aaron Nola, according to Dave Dombrowski, is “a better pitcher than what he’s been pitching recently. He just is.”
The Phillies' Aaron Nola, according to Dave Dombrowski, is “a better pitcher than what he’s been pitching recently. He just is.”Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

No matter what happens before the trade deadline at 4 p.m. Friday, Phillies officials know the club’s playoff chances may well hinge on two things.

“We need Aaron [Nola] and Zach Eflin to pitch well,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Saturday. “And I think they’re capable.”

Nola, scheduled to face the Atlanta Braves in Sunday’s series finale, hasn’t pitched well now for a few months. Eflin, meanwhile, missed his last start with patellar tendinitis in his right knee and will miss at least one more, although Dombrowski expressed confidence that the right-hander “is going to be fine.”

Regardless, the Phillies’ optimism that they can end a nine-year playoff drought despite their defensive flaws and shaky bullpen stems from an easy schedule in August and September, a weaker-than-expected NL East, and the top-of-the-rotation trio of Zack Wheeler, Nola, and Eflin. If they can count only on Wheeler, it won’t matter what moves Dombrowski makes before the deadline.

» READ MORE: Phillies' Dave Dombrowski intends to buy at the trade deadline. But can he pull off a big deal?

Nola has been one of the best pitchers in the National League since the beginning of the 2018 season. But he has struggled to repeat his delivery and command his fastball -- issues that are often related -- for most of the season. He has a 5.38 ERA in 15 starts since a two-hit shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals on April 18 and a 4.64 mark overall, 28th among 29 National League pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

On top of all that, Nola missed a start before the All-Star break after being placed on the COVID-19 restricted list for being deemed a close contact of infected third baseman Alec Bohm. Nola wouldn’t have been subject to contact tracing if he was vaccinated. Like many Phillies players, he hasn’t gotten the shot, a decision that he labeled “a personal choice.”

Nola returned to the mound after a two-week absence Tuesday night and gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium.

“Aaron Nola’s a better pitcher than what he’s been pitching recently. He just is,” Dombrowski said. “And we need those three guys bad. If they’re pitching up to their capabilities, I think our fours and fives can get by with five innings with a deep bullpen. The key is having the top three guys really pitch well.”

Howard will start again

Spencer Howard will start at home Monday night in the opener of a four-game series against the Washington Nationals.

And this time, the Phillies may let the top prospect pitch for a while after keeping him on a conservative innings limit for the first half of the season.

“We kind of took the gloves off,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We’re at a point where we don’t need to conserve innings anymore.”

Howard made a spot start on short rest in place of Eflin on Wednesday night in New York and shut out the Yankees for three innings. Girardi said he was impressed with Howard’s offspeed stuff, specifically a firmer, harder slider.

Painter introduced

The Phillies introduced first-round draft pick Andrew Painter, who signed last week for $3.9 million. The 18-year-old right-hander recently attended a minicamp in Clearwater, Fla., and could make his pro debut in rookie-ball games later in the summer, according to assistant general manager Bryan Minniti.

“Right now, I’m really just trying to get in the best shape possible,” Painter said. “I don’t think there’s any rush to get on the mound. I think we’re going to take everything slow and really try to prioritize the health.”

» READ MORE: Phillies pick high school pitcher Andrew Painter in the first round

Painter was accompanied by his agent, Scott Boras. After the news conference, Dombrowski turned to Painter and said he and Boras “did this with Max Scherzer, too.”

“The great thing about Andrew, and you can certainly credit his parents, is that his maturity level is beyond his age,” Boras said. “He is a very, very disciplined athlete playing at a highly competitive high school in Florida.”

Extra bases

The Phillies placed outfielder Adam Haseley on the COVID-19 restricted list. Haseley is in Clearwater, Fla., where he’s trying to come back from a right groin strain that occurred last month in triple A. ... The Phillies claimed minor-league right-hander Tyler Phillips off waivers from the Texas Rangers. Phillips, 23, grew up in South Jersey and went to Bishop Eustace Prep. ... Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey threw the ceremonial first pitch to The Phanatic. ... Former Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper died Saturday. He was 72. Looper worked for the Phillies from 2008 to 2017 under GM Ruben Amaro Jr. In a statement, the Phillies said Looper “will long be remembered for his endearing personality, kindhearted demeanor, and infectious smile.”