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Phillies’ faint playoff hopes ride on the arm of Aaron Nola today, and he’s faltered in Septembers past

The Phillies' best pitcher is elite by almost every statistical measure - except his 4.33 ERA in 16 starts over the last three Septembers.

Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola will play in the biggest game of his career on Sunday.
Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola will play in the biggest game of his career on Sunday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Austin Nola always looked out for his little brother, from the halls of Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, La., to the bright lights of a nationally ranked baseball powerhouse at LSU.

Surely, then, he could be counted on once more.

Aaron Nola will make the biggest start of his career Sunday at Tropicana Field, and it was made possible in part by his big bro. With the Phillies needing help Saturday night to keep their playoff hopes from vaporizing into the Bay Area fog, Austin drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in a 6-2 San Diego Padres victory that put the San Francisco Giants' clinching party on ice.

And so, the eighth and final seed in the National League comes down to the season’s final day. The Phillies (28-31) are one game behind the Giants and Milwaukee Brewers (both 29-30). If those teams lose to the Padres and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively, and if Nola – Aaron, that is – can beat the Tampa Bay Rays, the Phillies will make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

“It’s not the best place,” left fielder Andrew McCutchen said Saturday night, “but, I mean, it could always be worse.”

Indeed, the Phillies could have someone other than their best pitcher on the mound.

By every statistical measure, Nola is elite. Since the start of the 2018 season, he ranks fourth in baseball in innings pitched (482⅓), tied for fifth in wins (34), and seventh in strikeouts (543). Among 89 pitchers who have made at least 50 starts, he has the 10th-best ERA (3.10) and ranks 11th with a 140 adjusted ERA (100 is average).

But for all of his success, Nola hasn’t achieved a reputation as a big-game pitcher. Not only hasn’t he made a postseason start, he has faltered down the stretch three years in a row with the Phillies in wild-card contention.

In 16 September starts between 2018, 2019, and this year, Nola is 4-8 with a 4.33 ERA. Even in 2018, when he finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting, his September ERA (3.72 in six starts) was more than a run higher than his overall season mark (2.37 in 33 starts).

This year hasn’t been much different. Although Nola made a pair of lights-out starts against Washington (eight shutout innings on Sept. 1) and Miami (seven shutout innings on Sept. 11), he gave up five runs in each of his last two starts against the Mets on Sept. 17 and the Nationals on Sept. 22.

So, which version of Nola can the Phillies expect on Sunday?

Whatever happens, it figures to go a long way to defining his status as a money pitcher.

“You can’t compare this September to any other September,” manager Joe Girardi said Saturday. “The other Septembers he’s logged in probably 175 innings going into September. It’s completely different.”

Girardi also noted that Nola pitched on four days' rest throughout September last year, with former manager Gabe Kapler taking advantage of days off in the schedule to maximize Nola’s starts. This season, Nola has gotten an extra day off twice in September.

The Phillies have lost three of Nola’s five starts this month. They lost co-ace Zack Wheeler’s final three starts, including Saturday night’s 4-3 setback against the Rays. Their inability to cash in victories when their two best pitchers start has contributed to their predicament in the playoff race.

If Saturday night was an indication, Girardi will push Nola as far as possible. Wheeler threw 118 pitches, his highest total in a start since 2014. Nola can expect to top his 113-pitch total from his previous start, especially considering the historic struggles of the bullpen.

Girardi’s expectations for Nola are simple.

“You ask him just to be Aaron Nola,” Girardi said. “Just be who you are. And it’s really pretty good.”