Aaron Nola left the Phillies dugout Saturday night and walked to the mound at Citizens Bank Park to begin the final start of a season in which he emerged as one of baseball's elite pitchers.
The team's epic collapse over the last two months may have soured what Nola had done this season, but at least a 3-0 win over the Braves could be a chance to savor Nola independent of what fell apart around him.
And then Nola's teammates followed him from the dugout. The leftfielder — Dylan Cozens — went to right field and the rightfielder — Odubel Herrera — went to left field. The Phillies began their penultimate game of the season by lining up in the wrong positions.
Cozens and Herrera switched to their right places and Nola's final start could begin. He pitched seven shutout innings. The Phillies finally won. It was one more night to appreciate Nola before the players go their separate ways. But it would be impossible to focus on Nola without noticing the collapse around him.
The Phillies scored three times in the seventh inning, which was enough to ensure that the Phillies will not be the first National League team since 1937 to end the season with a double-digit losing streak.
"It feels good," Nola said of ending his season with a strong performance. "I think it feels better for us as a team to get a win like this after being 0-9. It was a big one for us to finish the season strong."
The nine-game losing streak was snapped on a two-run single by Cesar Hernandez. Herrera tacked on another with a fielder's choice.
Hector Neris, who turned around his season just as the team was collapsing, pitched a perfect eighth. Seranthony Dominguez finished the ninth. After a troubling two months, the Phillies finally provided something to cheer about. A win on Sunday and the Phillies would still finish with just eight wins in September, their worst final month of a season since 1941.
Nola struck out eight, allowed two hits, and walked four. He finished his season with a 2.37 ERA and 224 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings. He stayed healthy and pitched a complete season. Not only was Nola brilliant, he was reliable. He joins Curt Schilling as just the second pitcher in franchise history to log 200 or more innings with a strikeout-per-nine ratio better than 9.4.
"When I told Nola he was going to be done for the game, I looked at him and said, 'That's maybe the best season that I've ever seen a pitcher have up close,'" manager Gabe Kapler said. "I was with Pedro Martinez, arguablyy in his prime. I think Nola's season is right up there with Roy Halladay's best and Cliff Lee's best and Steve Carlton's best. It was a jaw-dropping season."
Grover Cleveland Alexander is the only other Phillies pitcher to strike out 200 batters and hold opponents to a batting average of .200 or lower. Nola was one of maybe a handful of Phillies who clearly improved in 2018. Nola, just as he was on Saturday, was excellent. And it is a shame that his season will not extend into October.
But the Phillies — from Matt Klentak to Kapler to Rhys Hoskins — are adamant that they will grow from this collapse. If they do, an alignment miscue will be a bit more forgivable. But more important, the Phillies will have an elite pitcher waiting to guide them into the postseason.
"Now we know what we have in Aaron Nola for 2019," Kapler said.