Throughout their history, the Phillies have been led by several notable aces, from Hall of Famers Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, and Steve Carlton to the uber-rotation of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay.
Aaron Nola is on a roll that would make any of them greener than the Phanatic with envy.
Nola began his latest gem Saturday at Citizens Bank Park by giving up a titanic opposite-field home run to Pittsburgh Pirates leadoff man Sean Rodriguez on the second pitch of the game. He ended it 101 pitches later by striking out Jordy Mercer on a wicked change-up.
In between, Nola kept the Pirates' hitters guessing with a three-pitch mix and the deficit small enough for Rhys Hoskins to win the game with one swing. Hoskins' three-run homer in the sixth inning — in yet another two-strike count — made the difference in a 6-2 victory, the Phillies' third straight overall and eighth in nine home games this season.
"Noles," manager Gabe Kapler said, "Noles was tremendous today."
But that's really nothing new. The 24-year-old righthander has been mostly masterful in every fifth game since the middle of last September.
Nola allowed two runs on six hits and piled up nine strikeouts over seven walk-free innings against the Pirates. It marked the eighth consecutive start in which he gave up no more than a pair of runs and a half-dozen hits, matching Roy Oswalt for the longest such streak by a Phillies pitcher since 1908. Nola is 4-2 with a 2.28 ERA during that stretch. Oswalt was 5-0 with a 1.06 mark in his eight-start run from Sept. 12, 2010, through April 21, 2011.
Things didn't start particularly well, though. Rodriguez smoked Nola's second pitch, a 94-mph fastball, off the scoreboard on the façade of the second deck in right field.
But Nola settled in thereafter, thanks in large part to a superb change-up. He used the bat-slowing offspeed pitch in counts that typically call for fastballs and retired 15 of 17 batters after Rodriguez's homer.
"Since I started catching him and all that, it's been a good pitch, really good," catcher Jorge Alfaro said. "I never have second thoughts about calling that pitch, because he's so good with that pitch. I just go right at it."
Even when Nola's defense let him down in the sixth inning, after a run scored when a pop fly fell between centerfielder Odubel Herrera and backpedaling second baseman Cesar Hernandez, he calmly got Josh Bell to ground out, shutting off the inning without additional damage and keeping the deficit at 2-0.
"Nola in that situation never got rattled," Kapler said. "There are so many pitchers who would get frustrated and then not be able to execute their pitches. It was just the opposite with Noles. It didn't faze him at all. He just got right back on the bump and delivered his next strike."
The sixth-inning surge began innocently enough when Kapler contended that Pirates lefty Steven Brault nicked Carlos Santana's jersey with a pitch with one out in the sixth. A video review confirmed Kapler was right. Santana took his base, then went to third on Herrera's single.
Up stepped Hoskins, who took two strikes and hit a long foul ball to left field against reliever hard-throwing Michael Feliz. But Hoskins is perfectly comfortable in two-strike counts. He entered the game batting .308 (12-for-39) with three doubles, two homers, and a .976 OPS with two strikes against him. He fouled off two more pitches, and on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, cranked a 97-mph fastball over the left-field fence for a 3-2 lead.
"I had a conversation with [hitting coach John Mallee] the other day about trying to hit like there's no count," Hoskins said. "That really stuck with me. It just adds to the comfort level of whatever the count may be, 2-0 and 0-2 is the same thing. I think if you can control your heart rate and be comfortable in the box, good things are probably going to happen."
Nola made sure the lead held up in the seventh inning. As his pitch count climbed, and with less oomph than usual on his heater, he turned to back-to-back change-ups to win a seven-pitch duel with Mercer.
"I wasn't really on fumes. I was just trying to play the at-bat out," Nola said. "I thought at that point the change-up was the best option there."
It was the stuff of aces, the likes of which Nola is quickly becoming.