Needing just 12 pitches to retire Atlanta’s top of the order, Phillies starter Aaron Nola exuded confidence as he walked toward the home dugout. He tucked at his belt and tapped his chest twice, as if he were saying to himself that Sunday was his day.
Ahead of his start, Nola had a 4.64 ERA, which ranked 28th of 29 National League pitchers eligible to qualify for the ERA title. He’s been spotty at best during a 2021 season, in which he’s struggled with his fastball command and delivery.
But on Sunday, Nola appeared to be in complete control.
“I felt my best today as I have all year,” he said.
The 28-year-old pitcher dotted his fastball in and around the zone and supplemented his heater with a knuckle curve that induced 11 of 19 total swings and misses from Atlanta hitters.
Nola allowed just four hits across 8 ⅔ innings with nine strikeouts and zero walks. The Phillies needed just two runs -- a pair of solo home runs from Jean Segura in the fourth and Ronald Torreyes in the eighth -- to secure the 2-1 victory, which brought Philadelphia (49-49) back to .500 and one game ahead of Atlanta in the NL East.
“Everything was good, but it starts with the location of his fastball,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “It was really good today.”
Said Nola: “If you can command your fastball to both sides, it sets up all your other pitches. That’s what I worked on a lot this past week in my bullpens and in throwing, trying to get my fastball back in sync. I’ll try to keep doing that this week and into my next start.”
Nola’s performance was reminiscent of his dominant 2018 campaign, when he was one of the NL’s best pitchers. His outing is also what Phillies president Dave Dombrowski expects from Nola more regularly. In 20 starts this season, Nola has allowed zero walks just four times.
“As starters, we always want to go deep into games.” Nola said. “My biggest thing is I always believe I can do it. Because if you do that, there’s always a chance to do something [special].”
Even after Austin Riley doubled to begin the seventh inning, Nola remained unbothered. He induced a groundout from Dansby Swanson, which allowed Riley to advance to third base. Then Abraham Almonte flew out to shallow left. The tension seized after Nola induced another groundout from Guillermo Heredia to end the inning.
Nola tucked at his belt again as he exited the inning unscathed.
Nola received a rousing ovation after the eight inning, when he struck out Joc Pederson with a nasty curveball that hit the dirt and nearly left Pederson at his knees.
Down to Atlanta’s final out, Riley homered off Nola in the top of the ninth, which forced Phillies manager Joe Girardi to remove Nola at 116 pitches. Ranger Suarez closed the door by striking out the only batter he faced, Swanson, in three pitches.
“I want to be pushed,” Nola said. “I feel like I can go 115-120 pitches. I had two strikes on Riley, he kind of got me all day today with a couple of doubles and that homer.”
With Friday’s trade deadline looming, Dombrowski insists the team will be buyers in five days. Nola’s outing only helps the front office’s case to push buttons now. Nola dropped his ERA by 27 percentage points with his season-best performance.
“This year, I just haven’t made quality pitches with guys on base,” Nola said. “I’ve given up too many home runs, too many hits, especially with guys on third and second. ... I think getting ahead of guys was a big key today.”
With the division still up for grabs and two months remaining in the regular season, the Phillies could supplement the back-end of the bullpen with a big-name addition.
“We’ve got to try to keep pace and we’ve got to make up some ground,” Girardi said.