Bryce Harper couldn’t play. Neither could Didi Gregorius. Three relievers were unavailable after pitching the night before. The fifth- through seventh-place hitters in the Phillies’ order were a combined 2-for-43 with 15 strikeouts coming into the game.
But hey, at least it was Aaron Nola Day.
That designation, made each time the Phillies’ best pitcher takes the ball, meant even more than usual Thursday. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to riding him to a tidy, road trip-wrapping victory. Manager Joe Girardi’s fifth-inning decision to call for an intentional walk, in combination with one bad pitch by Nola, unintentionally took the game out of the ace’s steady hand and precipitated an eventual 4-3 loss in 10 innings to the Cardinals.
“This game is on me,” Girardi said after being asked about Matt Joyce’s terrible judgment on the bases in the top of the 10th and catcher J.T. Realmuto’s inability to block a wild pitch that enabled the winning run to score. “It’s not on those guys. It’s not on J.T. It’s not on Matt. It’s on me. I was the one who chose to walk [Edmundo] Sosa to get to [Matt] Carpenter, and it didn’t work out. So this one’s on me.”
The Phillies missed opportunities to a) win back-to-back games for the first time April 5, b) push their record above .500 for the first time since April 18, and c) win their first road series of more than three games since Sept. 17-19, 2019. In settling for a split of the four games at Busch Stadium this week, they continued to simply run in place.
To be fair, a lot of things happened after Girardi elected to intentionally walk the Cardinals’ No. 8-hitting backup shortstop with two out, the pitcher due to hit, the Phillies leading by one run, and Nola sailing right along, same as he did in shutting out St. Louis back home 11 days earlier.
Carpenter’s three-run, pinch-hit homer didn’t decide the game either. The shorthanded Phillies tied it up with two runs in the seventh inning on big hits by Nick Maton, Andrew McCutchen, and Alec Bohm, and squandered a chance to take the lead when Joyce made the final out of the 10th at third base after tagging up on Rhys Hoskins’ fly ball to center field with Realmuto on deck.
“It was just over-aggression,” Realmuto said. “I’m not sure Joycie heard someone yelling, ‘Tag,’ and he thought it might be the coach telling him to tag and go to third. There might’ve been some confusion there. But it was definitely frustrating not to be able to come up in that spot.”
Realmuto also blamed himself for not being able to block reliever David Hale’s curveball in the dirt in the bottom of the 10th. The ball skipped by him, and Tyler O’Neill hustled home from third base.
But the tenor of the game changed when Girardi chose to have Nola pitch to Carpenter instead of Sosa. Nola left a curveball up, Carpenter hit it out, and the Phillies suddenly had to come from behind with Harper and Gregorius sidelined after being hit by consecutive pitches Wednesday night. Instead of being able to lean on Nola into the late innings, Girardi had to lift him for a pinch-hitter in the seventh after only 80 pitches.
“It changed the whole complexion of the game,” Girardi said. “I made a decision. I’ve got to live with it. Tough loss.”
In the moment, Girardi didn’t see any downside to the move. Either the Cardinals allowed starter Kwang Hyun Kim to hit or they turned to their bench, likely Carpenter, who is off to a dreadful start this season and was 3-for-19 with nine strikeouts in his career against Nola, including 0-for-7 with seven strikeouts and two walks since 2019.
Nothing about their history suggested Carpenter would tee off on a breaking ball.
“It wasn’t really a good one,” Nola said. “It kind of hung up there. He put a good swing on it. If I get it down a little bit more, I think I get him out. Looking back, I didn’t throw many curveballs that inning. He might’ve been sitting on it. Hard one to swallow.”
Said Realmuto: “It wasn’t one of Nola’s best breaking balls of the day. The location wasn’t horrible. He’s had a lot of success with Carpenter in the past with that breaking ball. That’s really the first good swing he’s put on it.”
Would the Phillies have been better off just pitching to Sosa? Maybe. But then he did single off Nola earlier in the game.
“To be honest, I can see both sides of it,” Realmuto said. “It’s easy to second-guess because it didn’t work out for us. But you can’t really fault [Girardi] for that decision, just because of the numbers that Carpenter had off Nola. I’m sure if you ask Nola, he thinks he can get their 8-hole out and that’s probably what he’d prefer to do. But it was a tough decision either way.”
It didn’t work out, and it changed everything.
So much for a happy Nola Day.