It is nights like Friday — when Aaron Nola dazzled for seven innings in a 4-2 win over the Mets — that make it feel possible that the right-hander could do what was once thought to be farfetched.
Lead the Phillies to the playoffs? Well, maybe. But how about win a Cy Young?
The ballots for the National League's Cy Young Award will be cast in seven weeks and it has been accepted that this season's race has narrowed to Max Scherzer of the Nationals and Jacob deGrom of the Mets. But those voters will now be hard-pressed to ignore Nola.
He had 11 strikeouts Friday and held the Mets to three hits and one run to lower his ERA to 2.24. He recorded 17 of his 21 outs via either strikeout or flyout. There was not much hard contact. He used his fastball, curveball, and change-up for 21 swing-and-misses, his most since May. Nola's signature curveball was on-point as he used it for seven swinging strikes.
It is almost a folklore now that when the Phillies drafted Nola, no one expected the first-round pick to develop into a Cy Young candidate. The thinking went that Nola was a pitcher who could zoom through the minors and fill out a major-league rotation. He's proving in his fourth season that he can sit atop one.
Among Scherzer and deGrom, Nola has the third-lowest ERA, second-most wins, third-best walk rate, and the third-best WHIP. Nola might not be better than those two pitchers, but his numbers are not far off from the horses at the front of the Cy Young race. Nola has put together his season in the midst of his first playoff race. Perhaps that will curry favor when the ballots are cast. If not, Nola still has plenty of time and a handful of starts to sway voters.
"To be in the talk with the other two guys, those guys are pretty good," Nola said. "I just try to win for this team. That's what everyone over here's main goal is, to just keep on winning and try to win our division.'
Friday's effort was his fifth double-digit strikeout game of the season. Just six other Phillies pitchers — Cliff Lee, Curt Schilling, Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning, Chris Short, and Ray Culp — have recorded five double-digit strikeout games in a season. Nola joined elite company. He might not lift a Cy Young Award this offseason, but make no mistake that Nola has emerged this season as one of baseball's premier pitchers.
"There was a lot of Cy Young Award chatter leading up to today and you could see why," manager Gabe Kapler said. "He rises to the occasion. He's ready for the biggest moment. He likes the brightest spotlight. I think he knew [Noah] Syndergaard was on the mound on the other side. I think he knows deGrom is pitching tomorrow's game. No spot is too big. No spotlight is too bright. He just elevates his game."
The Phillies scored three times in the first inning, providing Nola with all the support he would need. Nola is now 13-0 this season when receiving at least three runs of support. Asdrubal Cabrera hit an RBI double with a first-pitch swing and Nick Williams then jumped on the next pitch to drive in Rhys Hoskins in with a single to center. Cabrera scored when Carlos Santana hit into a double play. In the fourth, Roman Quinn tripled and scored on single by Jorge Alfaro. That was more than enough for Nola.
"It's pretty nasty," Quinn said of watching Nola's curveball from his perch in center field. "I've seen it in live batting practice once before and it's not something you want to stand in front of. He's steady rolling and it's fun to watch him pitch."
The Phillies, whose offense typically tends to grind out long at-bats, built a quick lead by attacking Syndergaard with early swings. And once they reached base, it seemed like everyone was running. Alfaro recorded his first two steals in the majors, Maikel Franco stole his first base in more than two years, and Santana swiped his second base of the season as the Phils took advantage of Syndergaard's long delivery to get extra jumps. First base coach Jose David Flores told his runners — the sprinters and the trotters — before the game to start running it worked.
Friday's game marked Nola's 25th start of the season. He has the lowest ERA (2.236) of a Phillies pitcher through 25 starts since Chris Short in 1964. The Phillies have won 18 of Nola's starts. They are two weeks from starting September in a playoff race and it would be hard to imagine the Phillies being in the position to fight without Nola. An elite pitcher has made the Phillies a division contender. And that elite pitcher might just be a Cy Young.
"His pulse is just very even. He's so calm," Kapler said. "He's so prepared. His in-between starts routine is impeccable. He has elite baseball makeup. It's not rah-rah. It's not in your face. It's not emotional. It's even, prepared, calm, and confident."