Aaron Nola watched his fastball zip the outside corner on Friday night and quickly ambled toward the home-team dugout in a 6-1 win over Milwaukee, believing he had struck out the side to end the fourth inning.
But home plate umpire Adrian Johnson did not flinch. It was a ball. Nola stopped his stride, returned to the mound, and fired almost the exact same pitch, practically challenging the umpire to expand his strike zone just ever so much. Johnson punched his right first and Nola had strike three. The inning was finished and the pitcher was rolling.
Nola's strikeout of Hernan Perez was part of a sequence where he struck out eight of nine batters between the third and sixth innings. He was brilliant, throwing his fastball with conviction and mixing in an effective curveball and a change-up that is suddenly blossoming into an effective offering. Nola allowed just five hits, struck out nine, walked two and allowed just one run as he logged seven innings for the fifth time in his last six starts.
"Nola was outstanding," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He's been working on that change-up all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now."
The pitcher has a 1.70 ERA in his last six starts. It is the second-lowest mark in baseball over the last 30 days by pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings, trailing only Clayton Kershaw. Nola has seemed to turn around his season and rediscovered the success he found as a rookie, when he made pitching look so effortless.
"Tonight? I didn't even know," said Nola when told he struck out eight of nine batters. "I guess it felt pretty good. I was just trying to get easy outs. It was hot at the beginning of the game and I just wanted to get in and out."
The Phillies provided Nola some room for error with a four-run sixth inning. Tommy Joseph smoked a two-run double off the center field wall, Cesar Hernandez drew a bases loaded walk, and Odubel Herrera slid into home to beat the throw from right field after Freddy Galvis flew out. Galvis hit a two-run homer in the first for his 11th homer of the season. Pat Neshek and Hector Neris pieced together the eighth and ninth inning.
Eagles training camp opens Monday and any attention still set on Citizens Bank Park will be shifted four blocks west to the NovaCare Complex. The Phillies will fight the rest of the summer for relevance. But Nola – especially when he pitches the way he has recently – provides a reason to watch every fifth day. He is easily the most exciting – and most important – player on the roster.
"He's better now than before when we liked him," Mackanin said. "It's really a nice jump for him to make. He's full of confidence and we have a lot of confidence in him."
Nola has looked at times like an ace and other times he has been lost. But he has been dominant for the last month and the season's final 10 weeks will provide a clear picture of who Nola is. Wednesday's start against Houston – the American League's best team – will be a good test.
The sixth-inning rally was more than enough for Nola, who returned to the mound and retired three of the final four batters he faced. He ended the seventh by striking out Domingo Santana, who swung past a fastball. There was no need to wait for the umpire, Nola's inning-ending strikeout was in the books. His night was finished and what a night it was.