Aaron Nola tugged the brim of his hat Thursday night as he neared the steps of the Phillies dugout, briefly acknowledging the ovation from the fans that followed him as he walked from the mound.
Nola was excellent, again. He struck out eight and allowed just one run. His ovation was well-deserved, but a 4-3 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park was far from over. The Phillies still needed four outs, and Nola – who pitched 72/3 innings – left runners on first and second. His night was left in the hands of the Phillies' shaky bullpen, a unit that entered the night with no plans to use Seranthony Dominguez, who pitched two innings Wednesday.
But even a three-run lead was not enough for Dominguez to rest. Adam Morgan needed just one pitch to end the eighth. But trouble brewed in the ninth, when Tommy Hunter allowed a run on a pair of hard hits.
That was enough for manager Gabe Kapler to start warming up Dominguez, who entered after Hunter worked a groundout. Hunter's struggles cost the Phillies the chance to rest their most important reliever.
Dominguez needed just nine pitches to end the rally, but he will likely be unavailable Friday. That was what it took to secure Nola's night.
Nola earned his 10th win of the season, becoming one of just seven pitchers in the last 20 seasons to have 10 wins before the end of June. He has allowed one or zero runs in seven of his last 11 starts and he lowered his ERA for the season to just 2.48. His biggest challenge Thursday came in the sixth, when Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon singled to start the inning. Nola was on the ropes, but he never flinched. He retired the next three batters and the rally was over.
"Earlier, when I didn't know Nola as well as I knew him, my heart would beat fast through periods of time like that," Kapler said. "And through innings where maybe a couple of batters got on base early. I wasn't quite sure what to expect and now I feel a complete peace in those situations, because he's so under control, he's so calm, he has a calming influence on everybody in the dugout, myself included."
Rhys Hoskins hit a towering two-run homer in the seventh. He has homered in consecutive games and has seven home runs in his 18 games since returning from the disabled list. Hoskins had just six homers in the 52 games he played before going to the DL with a fractured jaw.
He reached base three times, including a blistering fifth-inning single that reached the left-field wall on a hop. It was the hardest-hit ball of the game and a sign that Hoskins is comfortable.
Hoskins' jaw is still fractured, but it healed enough for him to eat a cheeseburger this week as he digested solid food for the first time since his injury. The bacon burger — which was prepared by the clubhouse chef — was the best Hoskins ever had, he said. Not even a fractured jaw can stop Hoskins from crushing burgers and hitting homers.
"I think the biggest thing is that I try to simplify things," Hoskins said. "I had a good start to the year and then I just started to think, and I think as a hitter you go up there with a clouded mind and things are just a tick late or a tick off. That can get frustrating. I was able to step back and simplify things and things are going well."
Nola kept the Nationals off-balance with the signature movement of his fastball, which he paired with his curveball and growing change-up. Those two pitches — the curveball and fastball — set Nola apart.
He faced Harper four times and struck him out three times. He mastered one of baseball's premier players. Nola fooled him with a curve in the first, froze him with a fastball in the third, and then pumped a 93-mph fastball past him in the eighth.
Kapler thought Nola got better as the game waged on. That last strikeout was proof.
"Those battles are fun," Nola said. "I think it's fun for myself and I think I learn a little bit about myself when I face guys like that."
The four-game series with Washington ends a challenging 10-game stretch against the Nationals and the Yankees. It also ends a 25-game stretch in which the Phillies played 22 games against teams with a winning record.