SAN DIEGO -- Aaron Nola was two strikes from finishing a complete game Saturday night. He carried a perfect game into the seventh inning, allowed just one hit to the Padres and struck out 11 batters, one of which was his older brother as his parents watched in the stands.
It had the makings of a magnificent night and it was the type of performance the Phillies need from Nola as they chase a playoff berth. And then Jake Cronenworth sent a 3-1 sinker deep into center field, tying the game with a two-run homer, and sending Nola on a long trudge to the dugout. An inning later, a 4-3 loss was complete on a wild pitch by Connor Brogdon.
“Heartbreaking,” Nola said.
It was a crushing finish for Nola and a mighty blow to the team’s playoff hopes. A week after being tied for first place, the Phillies now trail Atlanta -- which has won eight straight -- by five games for first in the National League East. The Phils have dropped four of their first five games on a six-game road trip and have lost eight of 11 since winning eight in a row.
“We have to take it game by game and go out and win a series tomorrow,” Nola said. “The gap has gotten bigger pretty quick but we can’t let that get in our heads. We have to play our game. We can’t worry about anyone else.”
Joe Girardi pushed Nola in the eighth by allowing him to lead off the inning despite the game being tied at 1. Nola had thrown just 88 pitches so Girardi sacrificed offense for another inning of Nola. But he was rewarded by Nola slapping a double to center, triggering a rally where both runs scored on hit by pitches with the bases loaded.
That decision paid off but it felt like the Phils missed a chance to tack on more runs. Ronald Torreyes made the last out with the bases loaded despite J.T. Realmuto being on the bench as an option to pinch hit. A big hit from Realmuto could have broken the game open.
“I mean, we got a couple of runs in the eighth, right? Yeah,” Girardi said. “Maybe if we get to the catching spot, I might do it, but we had a right-hander in there at the end and I just stayed with our guys who were in the game.”
Nola lifted his pitch count to 100 with an easy 12-pitch eighth inning and Girardi stayed with him into the ninth to finish the complete game.
“We talked to him and he felt great,” Girardi said. “As well as he was throwing and as taxed as our bullpen was [Friday] night, I felt like he would give us the best chance right there.”
Nola walked Fernando Tatis Jr. on five pitches and retired Manny Machado on a first-pitch change-up that the hitter just seemed to miss. His pitch count rose to 112 as Girardi let him face Cronenworth and the homer came on Nola’s career-high 117th pitch.
“I felt fine,” Nola said. “My misses weren’t super bad, especially to Cronenworth. I missed off the plate for a couple and threw that ball that leaked over a little too much.”
Nola vs. Nola
Aaron Nola does not show much emotion, but the radar gun provided a good look at how he felt in the second inning to face his older brother, Austin, for the first time in the majors. Nola struck out his brother on three fastballs and the last two (95.9 and 96.2 mph) were the hardest two pitches he has thrown this season. There was some excitement there.
“There might have been a little extra,” Nola said.
Nola retired the first 18 batters he faced and struck out seven straight between the second and fourth innings. He entered with a 5.75 ERA in his last 10 starts but seemed to right himself before his night ended with heartbreak. His fastball command was precise and his curveball broke with sharp action.
“Probably the best I’ve felt all year,” Nola said. “Especially with my fastball. Hopefully I can keep that going into my next outing.”
It was the first time in franchise history that a Phillies pitcher faced his position-playing brother. In 1988, Mike Maddux faced his brother, pitcher Greg Maddux. Nola retired his brother twice before walking him in the seventh.
“That was special,” Nola said. “A fun day. We always talked about playing against each other and the day finally came. It’s pretty surreal.”
After Nola finished the sixth inning, it was easy to see that the biggest challenge to completing a perfect game awaited him in the seventh as he would have to face both Tatis Jr. and Machado. But his attempt at the third perfect game in franchise history didn’t make it that far.
Brad Miller misplayed a grounder at first base by Trent Grisham to start the seventh, costing Nola his perfect game. He struck out Tatis, but Machado roped an RBI single for San Diego’s first hit. Nola recovered to strike out Eric Hosmer, ending the inning with runners on first and second.
Miller’s error led to a run and the defense plagued the Phillies again in the 10th. Adam Frazier started the inning with a sharp single that Torreyes failed to handle at third base and the winning run scored on a wild pitch that Andrew Knapp could not get his glove on. The Phillies have been one of baseball’s worst defensive teams all season and it was costly on Saturday.
Odubel Herrera homered on the second pitch of the game for his second round-tripper three games. Herrera had a rough June and July but is finding success in August. He entered Saturday with 16 hits in 48 at-bats this month and five extra-base hits with just five strikeouts in 55 plate appearances. Girardi plans to bat Herrera leadoff against right-handed starters.