The trade of reliever Pat Neshek to the Colorado Rockies was the headline grabber in the Phillies' world late Wednesday night (see story), but the most important occurrence of the evening happened on the little hump in the middle of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park.
Aaron Nola continued his mid-season surge with six shutout innings in a 9-0 win over the Houston Astros (see Instant Replay). The 24-year-old right-hander scattered four hits, walked one and struck out 10, a career high.
Over his last seven starts, Nola is 5-1 with a 1.49 ERA. He has struck out 60 batters in that span and walked just 14. Opposing batters have hit just .189.
Nola's recent success has come in the wake of an elbow injury that shut him down for the final two months of last season, some inconsistency early this season and a trip to the disabled list for an upper-back strain. Nola is pitching like the organizational building block that the Phillies projected him to be when they selected him in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2014 draft.
"I can't say enough about him, he's been outstanding," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're all really happy about the progress he's made. He's turned the corner, I think. I don’t have enough accolades for him."
Nola didn't beat just any team in his 16th start of the season.
The Astros have the second-best record in baseball at 67-34 and they lead the majors in just about every important offensive category, including runs, hits and homers. Sure, the Astros were without All-Stars Carlos Correa and George Springer — both American League MVP candidates — and standout Alex Bregman, but they still had a formidable lineup, led by hitting machine Jose Altuve, who ran his hitting streak to 18 games. He's hitting a cool .513 over that span.
"They're pretty good," Nola said. "I just had to stay with my plan that I've used the last few outings — get the leadoff hitter out and throw first-pitch strikes. I couldn't change anything just because they're in first place."
Nola used a three-pitch mix: a sinking fastball, curveball and his improved changeup. He finished off seven of his 10 strikeout victims with curveballs.
"I think location is important," he said. "You can have stuff but it might not get them as much as location. That's kind of what I was focused on. Making pitches in quality locations."
Nola's batterymate, Cameron Rupp, had a big night with a pair of two-run homers. The Phillies had nine extra-base hits and were 5 for 18 with runners in scoring position a night after going 0 for 10 in those situations.
"We got pitches to hit and we didn't miss them," Rupp said. "It was fun."
Rupp especially had fun catching Nola.
"Cy Young," he joked. "He's been outstanding the last month and a half. He's back to being the old Aaron that he was when he first came up. He's a guy that can lead a pitching staff. He knows how to pitch. He's got three pitches that he can put you away with. He's got a good fastball and his curveball has been great and now his changeup — he's learned how to use it and put guys away with it. When you do that, you're going to have a lot of success."