NEW YORK — As Aaron Nola stretched in front of the bullpen and fans filed into Citi Field, an in-stadium host previewed the opener of Friday’s doubleheader by editorializing — correctly, by the way — that the Phillies’ star pitcher is having an “un-Nola-like season.”
What else could Nola do, then, but give one of the best all-around performances in franchise history?
Nola struck out 10 consecutive batters, tying a 51-year-old major-league record set by, of all people, Tom Seaver, the late Hall of Famer and all-time greatest Met. Nola also got two hits, including a go-ahead RBI double.
But it’s 2021 and these are the Phillies, so Nola’s achievement was wasted by the poisonous double play of the bullpen and defense. First baseman Rhys Hoskins lost José Alvarado’s high throw in the sun on what should’ve been a routine out, Alvarado blew a save on the day he was named closer, and the Mets walked off the Phillies, 2-1, on Dominic Smith’s single off Ranger Suárez.
What happened in the second game, though, was even more quintessential 2021 Phillies.
They didn’t hit (again). They made another costly error and blew their majors-leading 18th save. But for each step back, they usually take one forward. And by pushing across a ghost runner without getting a hit and getting three outs from demoted closer Héctor Neris, they eked out a 2-1 victory and a split that kept them five games off the Mets’ pace in the NL East.
“Nola threw unbelievably well. That game’s got to be won, and we were unable to do it,” Bryce Harper said after hitting another solo homer in the nightcap. “Coming into this game, you know you’ve got to do the job. We’ve got to get it done. We knew coming into this series we have to get it done.”
There wasn’t any Knute Rockne speech, no words of inspiration between games, according to Harper. But then what was there to say? Nola did something that nobody on the field and few in the stands had ever seen, and the Phillies couldn’t take advantage.
And with lefty Matt Moore making a spot start in the finale and Mets ace Jacob deGrom — the best pitcher on the planet, with a 30-inning scoreless streak in tow — scheduled to start Saturday, winning the opener seemed paramount if the Phillies were going to cut into New York’s lead in the division.
But Moore resuscitated the Phillies by delivering five scoreless innings. He left with a 1-0 lead thanks to a leaping catch at the left-field wall by Andrew McCutchen to steal a home run from Albert Almora Jr. in the second inning and Harper’s homer in the top of the sixth.
For the second game in a row, though, the Mets tied it on an unearned run in the seventh inning. This time, it was third baseman Alec Bohm who made an error by failing to handle a grounder to his left. Stand-in closer Archie Bradley loaded the bases and gave up the tying run on a sacrifice fly.
The Phillies regained the lead in the top of the eighth on a pair of groundouts, then Neris got three outs to nail down the win.
“I think it was real important that we bounced back,” Girardi said. “You don’t lose too many games where a first baseman loses the ball in the sun.”
The record will reflect that Alvarado blew a save in the opener by giving up a two-out RBI single to Francisco Lindor. But the Phillies were done in again by the worst defense in baseball. Hoskins, with sunglasses resting on the brim of his cap, couldn’t find Alvarado’s high throw on Luis Guillorme’s comebacker to the mound to start the tying rally.
“It’s probably a matter of 10 or 15 minutes. If it’s before or after, we’re probably fine,” Girardi said of the shifting sun. “It’s an unbelievable way to lose a game.”
Almost as ridiculous as winning a game in which the go-ahead run scores without a hit. Whatever. The Phillies will take it.
“It’s a lot different going 1-1 today instead of 0-2 going into tomorrow against deGrom,” Harper said. “He’s the best pitcher in all of baseball. We’re looking forward to what we can do against him tomorrow. It’s going to be tough, of course.”
Nola entered with a 5.62 ERA in his last eight starts and was coming off a 2⅓-inning, six-run dud last Saturday in San Francisco, the shortest start of his career. But he was never better than he looked against the Mets.
It was vintage Nola. He pounded the strike zone with his fastball and got eight swings and misses early in the game with his curveball. He went heavier on his changeup the second time through the order and got eight swings and misses with that offspeed pitch, too.
After the Mets’ first two batters of the game reached base, Nola went on his strikeout binge. He froze Mets pitcher Taijuan Walker on a 91-mph fastball to open the third inning and tie the Phillies’ record of seven consecutive strikeouts, a mark shared by Steve Carlton in 1981, Curt Schilling in 1996, and Jerad Eickhoff in 2018.
Nola beat the franchise record by getting Jeff McNeil to swing through a sinker, then closed the third inning by whiffing Lindor.
“He got to six, and I was kind of sitting there like, ‘Did he just punch out six in a row there?’” Harper said. “And then he got to nine, and I run past the umpire and I’m like, ‘You ever seen that before?’ He goes, ‘No.’ I’m like, wow.”
» READ MORE: Aaron Nola’s 10 strikeouts: a closer look
Next up: Seaver. Tom Terrific is such a legend here that the official address of the Mets’ ballpark is 41 Seaver Way. Nola joined him in the record book by getting Michael Conforto to wave at a changeup after fouling off a fastball and a curve.
What made Nola go to the changeup?
“I don’t know,” Nola said. “I hadn’t thrown a changeup to that side of the plate, so it ended up working out and getting the K.”
Nola got two strikes on the next batter, Pete Alonso. But with history hanging in the balance — “I kind of knew because they were chanting, ‘Let’s go, Pete!’” Nola said — the Mets’ first baseman hit a cue-shot double down the right-field line.
“It’s pretty cool,” Nola said. “It’s pretty cool being in a category with Tom.”
The Phillies mustered only three hits in the opener, two of which came from Nola, previously an .082 career hitter. His first hit, a two-out single in the third inning, went off the wall in left field, narrowly missing going out of the ballpark.
In short, Nola did it all. And in typical Phillies fashion, even that wasn’t enough.
“It’s a cool accomplishment,” Nola said. “But winning’s cooler, in my opinion.”