ATLANTA - Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff were pulled into a meeting last week before the Phillies left town for a three-city road trip. Manager Pete Mackanin and Bob McClure had a demand for their two top pupils: pitch better.
Nola answered the call Tuesday night as he pitched eight dominant innings in a 3-1 win over the Braves at SunTrust Field to give the Phillies their fourth straight win. The pitcher said the night was a "bounceback" after he allowed nine runs in his last nine innings.
"I slapped them around a little," Mackanin deadpanned. "No, I just wanted to pose them a challenge and say, 'Let's go. Wake up, you're better than this. We know you're better than this. Start doing it.' He rose to it. And he begged me to go back out [for the ninth inning]. I was thrilled about that."
Eickhoff, who failed to finish the third inning in his last start, will pitch Wednesday. The pair are two of the seven starters who have debuted for the Phillies since July 2015. Some found success, others floundered. None has the promise that Nola and Eickhoff do. But the pitchers have struggled this season, forcing the manager to pull them aside. Nola's performance Tuesday was a reminder of what he may be.
The righthander allowed one run on five hits in eight innings. It was the first time a Phillies starter pitched past the seventh inning since last September, a stretch that covered 68 straight starts. Nola struck out six and walked one. He worked quickly, commanded his fastball, and mastered his curveball. He used the breaking pitch to strike out Nick Markakis in the sixth inning.
The righthander allowed a run in the first inning and then allowed just one other batter to reach second base. He was dominant a start after recording just nine outs. The Phillies need top-flight arms for their rotation as their rebuilding moves on. The season's final four months will help determine if Nola and Eickhoff can fill one of those roles.
"Eickhoff and I knew what we needed to do," Nola said. "We just needed to execute our plan. Fortunately, it worked out tonight. For Pete and them to refresh our memory, I think it definitely helped."
Howie Kendrick homered in the fourth inning, his second since returning last week from the disabled list. Kendrick went 3 for 4 and has 10 hits in his last 27 at-bats after missing 37 games with an oblique injury. His success plus the play of Aaron Altherr will keep it difficult for Mackanin to find playing time for Michael Saunders, whom the Phillies signed in January for $9 million. Saunders was out of Tuesday's lineup and is batting .218 with a .652 OPS in 179 at-bats.
"I have four guys that I want to get as much playing time as evenly as possible," Mackanin said before the game. "At this point, I can't justify not playing Kendrick or Altherr or Odubel, at least for today. He's going to get playing time."
Odubel Herrera doubled in Cesar Hernandez in the sixth. The centerfielder has nine hits in his last 17 at-bats as he continues to put his slump behind him. Herrera needed one more double to become the first player in baseball history to have two doubles in four straight games. Herrera then scored in the sixth when Braves starter Jaime Garcia was called for a balk. Freddy Galvis had two hits.
Hector Neris was yanked in the ninth after allowing back-to-back singles with one out. Nola made the first eight innings look easy. The final three outs came with difficulty. Mackanin went with Pat Neshek, who retired both batters he faced to earn his first save since 2015. Neshek has allowed just two runs in 22 innings and 24 of his 25 outings have been scoreless. He could be the team's all- star.
Nola retired the first two batters of the eighth inning with ease. And then he was tested. Ender Inciarte roped a single to right field. Pitching coach Bob McClure visited the mound, and the SunTrust Park fans broke out the tomahawk chop. They finally had reason to cheer and Nola finally had a challenge.
He threw two curveballs to Brandon Phillips before offering a fastball. Phillips laced the pitch to center field and Herrera raced to track it down. The outfielder got under it, leaped, and grabbed the ball with his glove, ending the brief stress of Nola's night. Nola returned to the dugout and spent the bottom of the inning lobbying Mackanin for three more outs. His night was finished and a challenge was answered.
"And boy did he rise to the challenge," Mackanin said. "He was outstanding."