The Phillies sent Aaron Nola to the mound on Monday, and he gave them seven shutout innings in a 4-0 win. They had not won since by the time Nola went back to the mound on Saturday.
For six innings, Nola did what the Phillies hope he does for years. He followed a losing streak with a dominant pitching performance. He needed just 74 pitches to finish six innings of one-hit ball and took a 1-0 lead to the seventh. But the Phillies, as they have so many times this season, failed to finish the job. Nola allowed two runs, and the offense couldn't rally in a 2-1 loss to the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park.
Nola had pitched following losing streaks of at least three games in two of his previous starts, and he dominated in both. In a miserable first half, he has been a rare bright spot. He will head into the all-star break with a 3.59 ERA, best in the Phillies' rotation. His ERA is 1.53 in the last four starts. The Phillies won the first three of those. Nola gave them every opportunity to earn another win on Saturday.
"We're trying to find answers for the future," manager Pete Mackanin said, "and Nola really stepped it up."
Nola began the seventh inning by inducing weak contact from Hunter Renfroe down the right-field line. First baseman Tommy Joseph and right fielder Nick Williams stayed put, thinking the ball was foul. Even Renfroe hesitated. But he ended up with a leadoff double.
After a groundout, Nola carved up Erick Aybar on strikes for the second out. But Carlos Asuaje hammered an RBI triple off the wall in right-center field to tie the game, 1-1. After pulling ahead 0-2 against Austin Hedges, Nola just missed his spot with the next fastball, and Hedges smacked it to right field for a go-ahead single.
Nola cruised through the eighth just as he had the first six innings. He surrendered just four hits and struck out nine. The keys, he said, were throwing first-pitch strikes and retiring the first hitter in each inning. Those hitters went 1-for-8.
"Definitely makes pitching a little bit more fun when you do that," he said, "and less stressful."
After missing a month earlier this season with a strained right elbow, Nola became as dependable as he was on Saturday. The Phillies began the first half with Jeremy Hellickson, their only veteran starter, on the hill. Assuming they trade Hellickson in the next few weeks, Nola could spend the second half working toward becoming the team's ace.
For now, the Phillies lack the offense to support him. The one-run loss was their 23rd of the year, the most ever by the team over the first half of a season. They had 23 one-run losses all of last season. On Saturday, they made a final effort in the bottom half of the seventh as Williams walked, and Joseph lined a double to left with one out.
Both were in scoring position for Maikel Franco, who in the fifth inning gave the Phillies the lead with a no-doubt home run to left. In the seventh, he hit a pop up too shallow to score Williams from third, and then he ended the game with a soft groundout to short. Mackanin said he thought the third baseman put too much on his swing.
"Sometimes, [that has] happened," Franco said. "You go out there, and you try to do too much, do everything for your team. Sometimes you have to just stay focused."