ATLANTA -- The Phillies still had six weeks left in the season, but they already knew in late August that their playoff chances were slim. Perhaps those odds would improve if they pitched Aaron Nola as much as possible. Nola, it was decided, would pitch every fifth day for the rest of the season, even when the team had an off-day between his starts.
It was a sound strategy. The Phillies had just won nine of the pitcher’s last 11 starts. More Nola, more wins. More wins, more likelihood of reaching October. But the strategy failed.
Nola was roughed up Thursday afternoon in a 5-4 loss to the Braves, and the Phillies have lost all six of his starts since they began pitching him on four days’ rest. The Phillies will need to go on a historic run to secure a wild-card spot, but that run becomes even more unlikely each time they fail to win with their best pitcher on the mound.
“I’m not going out there to try to lose,” Nola said. “I’m going out there and trying to compete. I’m leaving balls over the plate, and guys are taking good swings on it. I know the importance of it. I know where the team’s at and what we need to do to get where we need to be. I’m not going out there thinking about all that. Why this? Why that? It doesn’t change my mindset.”
Nola allowed five runs before being removed with no outs in the sixth inning. He allowed nine hits, two of which were home runs.
The right-hander had a 2.42 ERA in his 11 starts before switching to starts every fifth day. He has a 4.84 ERA in six starts since and a 6.14 ERA in September. He pitched great in Saturday’s 2-1 home loss to Boston, but he has allowed at least four runs in his three other starts this month. Nola has seemed to hit a wall, but he said he feels fine.
Bryce Harper said he was unaware the team has lost Nola’s last six starts.
“I’m kind of shocked, actually. ... Definitely, that’s tough,” said Harper, who doubled and scored a run in four at-bats. "He goes out there and puts his heart out there every single day for us. He’s our guy.”
The Phillies have 11 games left, including eight on the road. They will open a three-game series Friday night in Cleveland, then will have five games in four days in Washington and will finish the season with three home games against the Marlins.
“I don’t want to say too much, but we still have a chance, for sure,” Harper said. “We have a big series in Cleveland this weekend and a big series with the Nats. I think we’ll be OK. We’ll be good.”
Nola dug the Phillies into a two-run hole in the third inning when Ronald Acuna Jr. homered to left field. But the Phillies clawed back in the fifth, tying the score with a Scott Kingery triple, an Adam Haseley double, and a Cesar Hernandez groundout.
The game was not tied for long, though, as All-Star Freddie Freeman hit a two-run single off Nola in the bottom of the inning. With first base open, the Phillies could have walked Freeman to face Adam Duvall with the bases loaded. They pitched around Freeman for most of the three-game series, walking him five times before that at-bat.
The game was still early, manager Gabe Kapler said, and the Phillies liked Nola’s success against Freeman. The first baseman entered the game 9-for-40 against Nola.
“I think Aaron wants to go after every hitter,” Kapler said. “It’s something we talk about pretty frequently. He feels like he can beat any hitter. We feel like he can beat any hitter. He had a history of beating Freddie Freeman. At that point in the game, it felt like the right thing for Aaron and the club to left him go after Freddie.”
Nola said walking Freeman “didn’t really cross my mind.” His first-pitch fastball was not where he wanted it, Nola said, and Freeman did not miss.
“I really don’t think that was the turning point of the runs that I gave up, honestly. ... I don’t think that’s the turning point in the game, not walking Freddie,” Nola said.
The Phillies scored another run in the sixth, on Jean Segura’s infield single, but the shortstop injured his hamstring and had to leave the game.
Nola promptly gave that run back on a leadoff homer by Austin Riley. He walked the next batter and was removed.
The Phillies need everything to go their way for the rest of the month if they are to reach October. Segura suffered a hamstring cramp and will be reevaluated in Cleveland, Kapler said.
Losing Segura would not be ideal, but neither is losing six straight games with Nola on the mound. The Phillies tried to pitch him as much as they could. The plan just did not work.
“I always point to maintaining the stuff. The stuff is there,” Kapler said. “He was 93, 94, 95 [mph] like he always is. Good energy on the mound. He missed with some location. He had some curveballs back up on him. He wasn’t able to finish hitters. But, interestingly, he was efficient in that game.