There was no debate, J.T. Realmuto said in April, that Aaron Nola was one of baseball’s “aces.” Nola pitched a shutout for the Phillies that day and Realmuto said the doubts about Nola’s ace status were “not from people who know baseball.”
It was hard to disagree four months ago with Realmuto, but Nola has rarely looked the part since.
He failed Sunday to complete five innings in a 7-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds that knocked the Phillies out of first place. Nola allowed four runs in 4⅓ innings and left with the bases loaded. All six of the hits he allowed came with two strikes.
Nola has a 4.99 ERA in 20 starts since his shutout on April 18 against St. Louis, which is the second-highest over that span among National League starters.
“It’s frustrating, especially going for a series win,” Nola said. “I want to go deep for the guys and give them a good chance to win.”
The Phillies lost two of three to Cincinnati and their two losses came with their top two pitchers on the mound while the Braves swept the Nationals in Washington. The Phillies trail the Braves by a game and have lost four of six since the end of their eight-game winning streak.
It’s going to be difficult for the Phillies to keep pace with Atlanta if they can’t win the games started by Nola and Zack Wheeler.
“Obviously, he’s really important to us,” manager Joe Girardi said of Nola. “But so are the other four starters, too. It just doesn’t fall on him. It falls on the whole team and all the coaches and everyone involved -- the manager, the trainers -- to get this done. Keeping people healthy. All that.”
Nola allowed a leadoff homer Sunday on his third pitch of the game before the Reds scored two more in the third behind a rally started with a one-out single by pitcher Sonny Gray.
He loaded the bases in the fourth with a walk and hit batsman, yet escaped without a run. An inning later, he walked Joey Votto on four pitches to load the bases and Girardi decided not to allow Nola the chance to escape this time.
“It’s just execution,” Girardi said. “That’s all. Bottom line. Execution.”
Nola threw just 57 of his 88 pitches for strikes as he struggled with his fastball command. He walked as many as three batters in just one of his first 21 starts this season, but Sunday was the second time he did so in his last three starts. He looked like an ace in April but has battled inconsistency ever since. The Phillies needed more on Sunday.
“We’re not worried,” Bryce Harper said. “He’s Aaron Nola for a reason. He’s one of our guys. He’s going to be out there every single day and dominating every day the best he can. He works hard. He works his butt off each day. He’s working hard, so that’s all you can ask. He’s going to go out there and pitch his game.”
Bailed out by Bailey
Bailey Falter hadn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 18. He missed most of the last month after he tested positive for COVID-19 and also for being in close contact to someone who had the virus.
And the Phillies didn’t try to work him in slowly as the left-hander entered with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning after Nola was lifted. It seemed like a chance for the game to get out of hand, but Falter kept the Phillies within striking distance. He struck out the first batter, walked the next to bring in a run, and then ended the inning with a flyout. After Nola’s disappointment, Falter gave the Phils a chance.
“He’ll get sharper as we move forward. But he got some big outs for us and kept it in check going through a tough part of the order,” Girardi said of Falter. “So, to me, that’s really important moving forward. And we’re going to need him for sure.”
After Nola was lifted, the Phillies loaded the bases with just one out in the bottom of the fifth. Nola had dug them a hole, but this situation became important thanks to what Falter did. Three batters later, it was finished. Bryce Harper worked an eight-pitch walk, Didi Gregorius hit a sacrifice fly, and Andrew McCutchen struck out. The Phillies scored twice, but it felt like they could have had more with the heart of their lineup batting.
The hole became deeper in the eighth when the Reds scored three runs, but those runs would not have scored had home-plate umpire Sean Barber ruled Connor Brogdon’s 1-2 changeup as strike three, which would have been the third out. The pitch seemed to land in the strike zone, but Barber called it a ball. One pitch later, Barnhart had an RBI double, and the Reds went on to score two more on Tyler Stephenson’s pinch homer off Héctor Neris.
“I think if you were to write that, that’s probably really fair,” Girardi said when asked if Barber’s strike zone was erratic. “The pitch that Brogdon made, I mean, that’s a big miss. That’s a big miss.”
Reds manager David Bell and right fielder Nick Castellanos freed up their Sunday by being ejected from the game in the first inning.
Castellanos objected to Barber’s called third strike and was quickly tossed after making the game’s second out. Bell ran from the dugout, argued his player’s case, and was thrown out by third-base ump Alan Porter, who stepped in between Bell and Barber. Bell played four seasons with the Phils, so he may have been able to find a way for him and Castellanos to spend their Sunday.