NEW YORK -- As the Phillies headed into the All-Star break Sunday, they did so with a starting rotation that is comprised of two pitchers who were demoted to either the minors or the bullpen earlier in the season, one who recently felt fatigued 13 pitches into a game, and another who is trying to figure out if he will be able to keep pitching with a bone spur in his elbow.
Good luck winning the division with that motley crew.
Every fifth game, though, the Phillies give the ball to one of the best pitchers on the planet. And if Aaron Nola’s struggles through the season’s first 2½ months caused anybody to forget how good he is, well, let’s just say the last four starts have offered a crystal-clear reminder.
Nola didn’t allow a hit through five innings Sunday against the New York Mets. And because the Phillies staked their resurgent ace to a four-run lead in the first inning, they cruised to a stress-free 8-3 victory that put them in possession of the National League’s second wild-card spot, a half-game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I think we all know that we underachieved in the first half and we expect to play better,” left fielder Jay Bruce said. “I think our team’s better than what we’ve played. What’s done is done, and I look forward to the second half and seeing what’s going to happen.”
If general manager Matt Klentak is able to trade for a starting pitcher who can do as much to aid the rotation as Bruce has the lineup, they might actually have a shot.
Bruce continued to torment his former team and uplift his new one by slugging two more home runs, giving him 10 in 28 games with the Phillies, including four in seven games against the Mets. He singled to drive home a run in the four-run first inning against Mets starter Zack Wheeler and added a two-run homer in the sixth and a solo shot in the eighth.
Rhys Hoskins finished with two hits, including his 20th homer of the season. Jean Segura, Bryce Harper, and Cesar Hernandez also had two hits apiece as the Phillies closed with a 4-5 record on a nine-game road trip to Miami, Atlanta, and New York in which they averaged 5.7 runs per game.
“I think we’ve been swinging the bats better for several weeks now,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “If we had more games coming up here [before the break], I’d feel pretty good about our chances.”
None of the Phillies has been more productive than Bruce. Since coming over from the Seattle Mariners in a June 2 trade that ranks among the best in-season moves that Klentak has made, Bruce is 30-for-103 (.291) with 29 RBIs and a .641 slugging percentage. Overall he has 24 homers and ranks 10th in the majors in slugging (.575).
“Huge addition to our team,” Nola said. “It was tough to see [left fielder Andrew McCutchen] go down. He was a big part of our team. But Bruce has fit in really well. He’s a good guy, perfect for our team. And he rakes.”
The Mets did nothing of the sort against Nola. Through five innings, he allowed two baserunners, both on walks, and permitted only three balls to be hit out of the infield. His fastball command remained precise, his curveball sharp.
And he stretched his scoreless streak to 22 consecutive innings, one shy of his career high set in 2016, before Mets rookie sensation Pete Alonso hit his 30th homer of the season, a two-run shot to right field on an 0-2 curveball in the sixth inning.
Over his last four starts, Nola has allowed two earned runs on 14 hits and nine walks while striking out 34 batters in 29⅔ innings. His earned-run average has plummeted from 4.89 after a June 15 start in Atlanta to 3.74.
“When he’s going, I mean, he’s really, really effective and he’s just flat-out tough to hit,” Bruce said. “Especially since I’ve been here, when he takes the mound it’s been impressive. I’ve enjoyed playing behind him.”
The Phillies won for only the 10th time in 26 games -- and six of those victories have come in seven games against the Mets. Since June 8, when they were 37-27 and had a two-game lead in the division, the Phillies have slid to 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves.
“Some adversity in the first half, without question,” Kapler said. “But we’re in a good position to open up the second half. I think we’re all feeling pretty confident.”