PITTSBURGH - There is a modicum of uneasiness now whenever Aaron Nola steps onto a major-league mound. It was not like that when Nola's career began, when he was an automatic seven innings and so effective in his attack. But he grabbed a baseball Sunday at PNC Park, his first start in a month, and fired seven innings for the first time in 366 days.
"He looked like his old self, and I'm real happy about that," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "That's about all I'm happy about."
The Phillies lost, 1-0, and that mattered a little less than usual. Nola was sharp. If this Phillies rebuilding process is to eventually generate results in the standings, Nola will need to be a part of it. They spent a high draft pick on the righthander from Louisiana. Team officials have said they want to grow - not buy - their pitchers. That means Nola is an important arm.
It marked the first time since May 6 that a Phillies starter lasted seven innings. Still, they lost for 17th time in their last 21 games. They have dropped seven straight series for the first time since 2006. The silver lining: Nola displayed strong command and a healthy fastball.
"I was confident," Nola said. "My body felt good, back felt good. I felt like I didn't skip a beat. Those rehab starts really helped me a lot, especially my last one."
"His fastball was command was good," Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis said. "He had a lot of movement on the ball, too."
He stumbled in the sixth inning, when the Pirates loaded the bases on two singles and an intentional walk. Nola tried to pitch David Freese inside. He came too close and drilled Freese with a fastball. The decisive run scored as Nola looked skyward in disgust.
So be it. Nola had not pitched since April 20 because of a strained lower back muscle. The Phillies have readjusted their expectations for Nola after he floundered last June and spent a majority of the summer on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He can generate hope again with more starts like Sunday's.
Nola threw 89 pitches in seven innings. He could have continued, but the Phillies had to pinch-hit for him in the eighth inning. Nola struck out five. He was ahead of most Pirates hitters; they did not muster an extra-base hit against Nola.
Nola completed seven innings in 12 of his first 22 starts. He could not do it in any of his next 14, but he achieved the feat Sunday.
"He kept everything down," Mackanin said. "He had a good curveball today. He located it very well. He reminded me of the guy I first saw when he got here. He located that fastball in and out and low in the strike zone. Changed speeds. Kept them off balance, and the results showed."
The Phillies offense provided no support despite facing Pittsburgh's Chad Kuhl, owner of a 6.69 ERA. Kuhl held them hitless until the fifth inning, when Maikel Franco doubled. He was stranded there. They squeezed two runners on base in the eighth against hard-throwing lefty Felipe Rivero, but Aaron Altherr struck out.
"I mean, it's a little difficult," Galvis said. "But we have to keep playing. We have to stay together like a team. We have to keep fighting. It's a long season, man. I think we're going to do better. But we have to stay together like a team."
They were soaked from a steady rain that persisted all game, with only Nola's seven innings as a positive. At least, after 10 days on the road, the Phillies headed home.