Aaron Nola doesn’t usually go more than four or five days between starts, even when the schedule allows for extra rest. So when the Phillies decided last week to give him a six-day breather and Zach Eflin a nine-day respite, it sparked curiosity about the starters’ health, especially coming off a 2020 season that was only 60 games long.
“The immediate concern is not great,” manager Joe Girardi said last Friday. “But as they continue to add to that inning total, we had some concerns.”
Nola’s uneven performance Tuesday night won’t do much to alleviate them.
To be fair, it wasn’t Nola who coughed up a one-run lead in the eighth inning of the Phillies’ 9-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves before another intimate gathering of 13,125 at fully reopened Citizens Bank Park. Lay that on Connor Brogdon and Sam Coonrod, who combined to allow five runs in a late-game implosion that was reminiscent of the bad, old days of 2020 when fans weren’t allowed in the ballpark.
But Nola didn’t look like himself in an 89-pitch, five-inning slog. He had trouble finishing off innings, allowing a costly two-out walk in the first and a two-out home run in the fourth. Shutdown innings were elusive, too. He gave up runs in the fourth and fifth innings after the Phillies had just scored.
Most concerning, though, especially after a week off, was that Nola failed to complete seven innings for the eighth consecutive start, leaving the bullpen to get 12 outs, nine after the Phillies finally took the lead.
The Phillies have come to expect better from him.
“Felt fine,” Nola said. “Just missed some spots, and they scattered some hits, a couple solo home runs. Another tough outing for me. Tough game.”
Girardi pinned Nola’s problems on erratic fastball command. Ronald Acuña Jr., who is putting together a solid season just against the Phillies, demolished an elevated sinker into the second deck in left field in the third inning. William Contreras also went deep on a fastball.
But Nola couldn’t find the strike zone with his curveball on a two-out walk to Ozzie Albies in the first inning before giving up an RBI double to Austin Riley on a two-strike curve.
“I actually thought his curveball looked better tonight, the shape of it. I really did,” Girardi said. “He made some mistakes with his fastball again, and I think everything always starts with his fastball, his command of his fastball.
“They seemed to foul some pitches off. Obviously they’re very familiar with him because they’ve seen him so much. But at times he wasn’t able to put people away, and it hurt him.”
Nola had put the Phillies in a 4-2 hole when he was lifted for pinch-hitter Luke Williams in the fifth inning. Williams, making his major league debut, got the offense going by bunting for a single and dashing to third on a two-base throwing error by Braves pitcher Drew Smyly. Williams scored on Jean Segura’s double to cut the margin to 4-3.
The diversity of the offense was encouraging. Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto went deep — and took their turns with the Phillies’ new Home Run Hat custom in the dugout after circling the bases. But small ball worked, too, even leading to the go-ahead run in the sixth inning.
Alec Bohm went first-to-third on a single and scored on Nola’s safety squeeze to cut the deficit to 2-1 in the third inning. In the sixth, Bohm and Ronald Torreyes executed a hit-and-run before Brad Miller singled up the middle to forge a 5-4 lead.
But the Phillies left the door open for the Braves by leaving the bases loaded when Rhys Hoskins fouled out. It left little margin for error for the bullpen, which committed several in the eighth inning.
Brogdon, coming off his first career save Saturday, gave up a game-tying solo homer to Riley. He walked Dansby Swanson and gave up a single to Abraham Almonte before being replaced by Coonrod, who promptly gave up an RBI single to Contreras.
Coonrod tried to start a double play on Guillermo Heredia’s comebacker but instead chucked it into center field, enabling Almonte to score. Two batters later, Acuña lined a two-run single to left field to stretch the margin to 9-5.
Acuña finished with three hits, making him 15-for-39 (.385) against the Phillies this season.
After going six days between starts because of the Phillies’ inordinately light schedule, what was another 42 minutes for Nola while the start of the game got delayed by a suppertime storm?
Once Nola finally took the mound for his third start of the season against the Braves and his 16th since the beginning of the 2018 season, he dealt with a recurring problem: closing out an inning.
In the first, Nola gave up his 12th two-out walk in 13 starts and an RBI double to Riley that opened the scoring for the Braves. In the fourth inning, Contreras slugged a two-out home run that gave Atlanta a 3-1 lead. It was the 10th homer allowed by Nola this season and the seventh with two outs.
“They both bother me,” Nola said of the walk and the homer. “Obviously walks hurt, leadoff walks, two-out walks, pretty much any walk hurts. But home runs hurt, too. They battled me hard again. Put this one behind me and focus on the next one.”
With another day off Friday, the Phillies will have an opportunity to give Nola extra rest before his next start, too. It’s not clear if they will take it. They have a 6-7 record in his starts, and while that isn’t entirely a referendum on him, it’s evident that he isn’t as sharp as they need him to be.