WASHINGTON, D.C. — A year ago Friday, Aaron Nola carried a 4.76 ERA into his eighth start of the season. It may be hard to remember, but there was uncertainty then with the 25-year-old. He was coming off a 2016 season when he was hit around for most of June and July and then spent the rest of the season on the DL with an elbow injury.
Early into 2017, he hadn't yet gotten his mojo back.
When Nola dominated the Cardinals over 7⅓ innings that night, little did we know he was beginning a historic stretch of 10 consecutive starts allowing two runs or less in six innings or more.
The story on Nola has changed significantly over these last 366 days. Whereas a year ago it was unclear whether he'd live up to his potential, he's now solidified as an ace of a major-league staff who has well exceeded it.
And whereas that win on June 22, 2017 improved the Phillies to 25 games under .500, this win capped off the fourth straight series win for a surging team.
Nola made another impressive start Saturday, limiting the Nationals to two runs over six strong innings. Both runs came in the first. After a leadoff single in the second inning, the Nationals went 0 for 14 off Nola until he exited.
The Phillies' 5-3 win made Nola 9-2 on the season. He's allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his 16 starts.
Over the last calendar year, Nola is 17-8 in 33 starts with a 2.86 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 211 innings. Ace-like production.
Any pitcher with that resume would be lying if he said the last year hasn't made him more confident. Nola certainly is.
"I feel like I'm learning more about myself, my body, learning more about the game," he said Saturday. "I feel like I just need to keep adding on though, the more I keep pitching. I think it's pretty cool."
After this weekend, the Phillies aren't back in D.C. until the end of August. But Nola will return to Nationals Park sooner because he'll undoubtedly represent the Phillies in the All-Star Game July 17.
It's an honor he's earned. To this point, the only two NL pitchers having better seasons are Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.
It's a testament to how good Nola has become that on an afternoon in D.C. when he felt like he had little, he still pitched well against a dangerous 1-6 of Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner.
"You're not gonna have your stuff all the time," Nola said. "Most of the time you're gonna have two pitches, really hope to have three pitches with command of all of them. Some days you feel like you have not much at all. That's kind of what I felt today. But it's all about competing and battling and that's what I did today."
That's what the Phillies have done for the last two weeks. They've won nine of their last 12 games, and after starting June with a 1-7 record, they're 10-10.
The offense has come around, the defense has gone a little while without being sloppy, and the starting pitching continues to keep the Phillies in games.
Perhaps we need to rethink the ceiling for this team. Not because of one 4-for-4 game from Maikel Franco (see first take) or a weekend series win in the nation's capital, but because of how well the Phils have held their own against top competition. They're 21-23 against teams .500 or above and 20-10 against losing teams. A formula like that can get you to October.
"The hitting's been off the charts, scoring runs like crazy," Nola said. "We're playing really good baseball."
June has been a disastrous month for the Phillies for years. Since 2012, they're 70-117 in June. But this time, the struggles didn't last the entire month. The Phils were able to turn it around after falling to 32-30 and are now eight games over .500 for the first time since May 31.
Have these last two weeks changed the conversation about the 2018 team?
"It may change the external conversations," Gabe Kapler said, "but internally, whether we went through this stretch and got beat up a little bit or went through this stretch and came out in a really good spot, we're still the same, high-quality team."