PHOENIX -- A few hours before a game here this week, at one end of the bench in the Phillies’ dugout along the first-base line, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola sat together, side by side, deep in conversation.
It was the picture of two star pitchers whose seasons are trending in opposite directions.
Wheeler is scheduled to make his 25th start Thursday in the series finale against the lowly Diamondbacks. He leads the majors in innings (162) and strikeouts (187) and is tied for the lead in shutouts (two) and complete games (three). He also has the most wins above replacement among pitchers (5.9), according to Baseball-Reference.com, and ranks second in Fangraphs’ calculation (5.5) behind Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes (5.8). By any measure, he has dazzled.
And if anyone with the Phillies is able to relate to the feeling of taking the mound every five days and expecting to dominate, well, it’s most certainly Nola, who finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 2018.
“Just watching him during the games and his bullpens, everything’s in sync,” Nola said recently. “His whole delivery is just perfectly in sync right now. The stretch he’s on, it’s impressive. It’s just so fun to watch because everything’s so electric. He goes 0-1, 0-2 so quick on guys. I haven’t really ever seen that.”
At his best, Nola pounds the strike zone and works ahead in the count, too. But he hasn’t commanded his fastball very well this season save for a handful of starts, which has made his signature curveball less effective. And when he has gotten into two-strike counts, he has allowed 59 hits, tied with Texas’ Jordan Lyles for the most in the majors. Among 23 National League pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Nola ranks 20th with a 4.48 mark.
There’s no denying the Phillies’ chances of overtaking the Atlanta Braves in the National League East depend largely on Nola’s reversion to top-of-the-rotation form. Wheeler and Nola will combine to make a minimum of 17 starts down the stretch. The Phillies likely will need to win a majority of those to reach the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Wheeler cares about nothing more, including his Cy Young chances, which get stronger with almost every start. Through the end of June, it seemed as though NL pitchers were vying to be the runner-up to Jacob deGrom. But the New York Mets’ all-world ace hasn’t pitched since July 7 -- and won’t until at least mid-September, if at all this season -- because of an elbow injury, opening a lane for Wheeler and a handful of other pitchers to snag the award.
And while Wheeler’s candidacy stands on its own merits, it’s possible that he may actually get a boost from Nola’s struggles. Here’s a look at the other pitchers with a Cy Young case relative to Wheeler’s:
Walker Buehler, Dodgers: Probably the strongest threat to Wheeler, the 27-year-old right-hander leads all qualified pitchers in ERA (2.09) and is tied for second in innings (154 2/3). Although most voters no longer regard wins as a relevant statistic for judging pitchers, Buehler is 12-2. The Dodgers are 16-8 in his starts, no small factor in their quest to catch the Giants in the tough-as-nails NL West at a time when three-fifths of their projected rotation is either injured (Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urías) or suspended (Trevor Bauer).
Kevin Gausman, Giants: In accepting the $18.9 million qualifying offer last year, he bet on himself having a solid season in San Francisco and parlaying it into a bigger free-agent payday this winter. But even Gausman couldn’t have expected this. He has a slightly better ERA than Wheeler (2.40 to 2.56) and more wins (12 to 10) and ranks fifth in strikeouts (169) and is tied for ninth in innings (142 1/3). The Giants wouldn’t be in first place without him.
Brandon Woodruff, Brewers: He locked up with Wheeler on May 8 at Citizens Bank Park in perhaps the most well-pitched game of the season. Woodruff struck out 11 batters and gave up one run on two hits, including a seventh-inning homer by Alec Bohm; Wheeler threw a three-hit shutout. The 28-year-old right-hander has given up the fewest hits per nine innings (5.84) and ranks third in ERA (2.18). But unlike Wheeler and Buehler, he has a running mate in the Milwaukee rotation who has been almost as good.
Corbin Burnes: Not only does the 26-year-old right-hander rank second in the majors in ERA (2.13), but he also has set or tied two major-league records. In May, he notched his 58th strikeout before recording a walk, the most ever to begin a season. Last week, he struck out 10 batters in a row, tying a mark shared by Tom Seaver and Nola. Although he lags behind the other candidates with 127 innings pitched, Burnes joins Woodruff in giving the Brewers the 1-2 punch that the Phillies envisioned with Wheeler and Nola.
There’s still time for Nola to give them that. Meantime, he will appreciate Wheeler’s season.
“He’s throwing 98-99, but he’s also spotting his fastballs, his sliders, his curveballs, changeups every now and again, his cutter,” Nola said. “It’s like guys don’t even really have a chance up there. It’s cool to see.”