The Phillies' $118 million starting pitcher was sidelined after ripping his fingernail while stepping into a pair of jeans, their unreliable bullpen was worn out with six games still remaining in a seven-game series, and their place in the standings felt far from sturdy after a brutal loss the night before.
If there was ever a time for Aaron Nola to throw his first complete game, it was Friday. The Phillies, after two-straight seasons of September fades, suddenly needed something to cling to. And Nola gave them just that.
He pitched all seven innings at Marlins Park in a 11-0 win over Miami in the first game of a doubleheader. He was excellent --10 strikeouts, no walks and three hits -- and provided the relievers a respite before they were tasked with handling all seven innings of a 5-3 loss in the second game of the doubleheader.
“Nola was great. He gave us exactly what we needed to allow us to do what we did in the second game,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We just didn’t score enough runs...Overall, we had a chance to win two and had a chance to score more runs in the second game. We just didn’t get it done.”
Nola’s performance was enough to build confidence that the Phillies can be a playoff team, while the second game served as a reminder that they would need their bullpen to help get them there. Heath Hembree gave up a homer, David Hale allowed two inherited runners to score, and David Phelps allowed a run in the sixth as three of the team’s four new relievers scuffled again.
As good as Nola was, the Phillies still lead the Marlins by just a half-game for second place in the National League East. And they still have four games left in Miami before leaving Monday.
The Phillies do not know when Zack Wheeler will pitch again and their bullpen will likely be asked to handle one of Sunday’s doubleheader games. The Phillies will likely exhaust all of their pitchers before leaving Miami on Monday, so it was imperative that Nola pitched deep on Friday.
He said he wasn’t feeling any pressure to do so, but he still came away with the first complete game of his career.
“I don’t feel like it counts,” Nola said. “Nine innings is a complete game. ... It’s good, but it’s not the original one.”
Nola struck out seven of the first 10 batters he faced and did not allow a hit until the fifth inning. He faced 25 batters and threw 106 pitches, and all 10 of his strikeouts came on empty swings. The Marlins could not touch him.
Nola has a higher-strikeout rate, lower walk rate, and nearly equivalent ERA to 2018, when he finished third for the Cy Young. And now he has a complete game. Perhaps he would want to keep a game ball as a souvenir.
“Yeah. I’ll keep it,” Nola said. “Might throw with it tomorrow.”
Their best-route to the postseason was to lean heavily on winning every Nola and Wheeler start for the final three weeks and hoping their offense could outhit the bullpen on the other nights.
But that plan changed Wednesday when Wheeler ripped his fingernail. The Phillies will now need even more from Zach Eflin, Jake Arrieta, and Spencer Howard, and ask their bullpen for competence. The longer Wheeler is sidelined, the harder it will be for the Phillies to reach October.
“I hope that he’ll be back soon,” Nola said. “That’s a bad finger that he has right there, but hopefully he can come back soon. You know what Zack is capable of doing. We all do. The guy’s a competitor, he’s really good, and we need him for sure. Him being down, and I don’t know how long, we’re going to have to piece games together and keep on competing no matter who’s on the mound. I know all of our starters are going to take it on themselves to go as deep as possible.”
The offense provided plenty of run support for Nola as the the Phillies seemed eager to pile on runs after their three-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning was not enough Thursday.
Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins homered, Jean Segura hit a two-run double, Adam Haseley had three hits, and Alec Bohm added two hits. McCutchen’s homer gave the Phillies an early two-run lead in the third and Hoskins' three-run homer in the fourth was his ninth in 17 games.
They scored just two runs in the second game before J.T. Realmuto drove in Bryce Harper with a two-out single in the ninth. The Phillies left the bases loaded in the fifth inning and left eight runners on base. Harper’s two-out double snapped an 0 for 18 stretch and was his first extra-base hit since August 29.
“I think he needed it,” Girardi said. “Any hitter that goes through a streak like that needs something like that. Don Zimmer used to call them personality hits. You need a personality hit. Hopefully that gets him going. It was a really good swing. During this, he’s hit some balls hard and has lined out and hasn’t had any luck. So maybe it’s turning.”
The lineup dominated Miami’s pitchers in the first game just as Nola dominated the Miami lineup. He retired 15 of the first 16 batters -- his only baserunner before the fifth inning came on a hit by pitch. But Major League Baseball said they would not recognize no-hitters this season in seven-inning doubleheaders. So when Brian Anderson laced a single to left field to start the fifth inning, Nola wasn’t losing an official no-hit bid.
His complete game is official by league rules, but his no-hitter would not have been. Even if it was, Nola wouldn’t count that either.