How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

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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."

Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

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AP Images

Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

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Remember all that talk about the Phillies' grueling June schedule?

They're meeting the challenge.

After Saturday's 5-3 win over the Nationals, the Phillies are 9-3 in their last 12 games and have won four straight series over the Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals and Nats.

On May 28, the Phillies embarked upon a 32-game stretch during which the worst team they'd face was a game under .500. The Phils are 24 games into that stretch and have gone 12-12. 

They opened June by losing seven of eight games yet have worked their way to 10-10 on the month.

At 41-33, the Phillies are 1½ games behind the Braves and 1½ ahead of the Nationals.

Nola bounces back

After failing to complete five innings for the first time in 36 starts last Sunday in Milwaukee, Aaron Nola rebounded and held the Nationals in check over six strong innings.

Nola allowed a pair of runs with two outs in the first and a leadoff single to Wilmer Difo in the second, then the Nationals went 0 for 14 against him the rest of the way. 

Nola is 9-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 16 starts this season. In 12 of them, he's allowed two runs or less.

Franco's big day

Huge afternoon for Maikel Franco, who went 4 for 4 with three singles and a double.

Franco scored in the second to tie the game, scored in the seventh to put the Phillies ahead and drove in a run in the eighth to give them a three-run cushion.

Both times he crossed home plate, he barely scored after aggressive sends from third-base coach Dusty Wathan — one on an RBI single from Nola, the other on a sac fly from Jesmuel Valentin. On the game-winning, seventh-inning sac fly, Bryce Harper caught the ball with his momentum coming toward the plate and fired home but Franco narrowly eluded catcher Spencer Kieboom's tag. The Nationals challenged but the call was upheld.

Thievery

The Nationals went 1 for 2 stealing bases against Nola, who has been on the mound for more steals (14) and attempts (18) than any pitcher in the majors this season.

Wilmer Difo swiped second in the second, but Jorge Alfaro ended the fifth inning by nailing Harper. Alfaro has thrown out 14 base stealers to lead the majors.

Going away from Altherr

Nick Williams got another start at right field and went 1 for 3 with a double.

Since June 10, Nick Williams has started nine games and Aaron Altherr has started two.

Altherr has just 20 at-bats in the Phillies' last 11 games.

Hard to argue with how Gabe Kapler is divvying up the playing time. Altherr is still hitting just .180 through 211 plate appearances, while Williams has hit .263 with an .833 OPS since May 1.

It was also telling that with the game tied and a man on third with one out in the seventh inning, Kapler opted to use Valentin instead of Altherr to pinch-hit for Nola.

Up next

The Phillies are on Sunday Night Baseball for the first time since Aug. 4, 2013.

They face the Nationals on ESPN at 8:07 p.m. with Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08) opposing Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta allowed six runs while lasting just one inning when he last faced the Nats here on May 4. Without that game, his season ERA would be 3.45.

Rodriguez is making his second career start. He allowed five runs in five innings and was taken deep twice Tuesday vs. the Orioles.

So ... what do the Phillies do when Jerad Eickhoff's ready to go?

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USA Today Images

So ... what do the Phillies do when Jerad Eickhoff's ready to go?

WASHINGTON — Saturday was an important step in the right direction for Jerad Eickhoff.

Eickhoff threw another bullpen session, this time using his curveball. He came away with no issues, which was big because his curveball had previously been causing numbness in his fingertips. Eickhoff had thrown all fastballs in his previous bullpen session Tuesday.

The 27-year-old right-hander has not pitched for the Phillies this season. He was placed on the DL with a lat strain in spring training, and when he was on the way back he again experienced that numbness in the fingers. He received an anti-inflammatory injection in his wrist and appears to be OK since.

It doesn't look like Eickhoff is ready yet to pitch live BP or begin a rehab assignment. Once he does begin a rehab assignment, the Phillies will have 30 days to decide what to do with him. If they deem him unready after the 30 days, they could activate him from the DL and option him to Triple A Lehigh Valley. Eickhoff does have an option remaining.

The reason that's even a possibility for a man who made 57 starts for the Phillies the last two seasons is the success of the current five-man rotation. 

Zach Eflin isn't going anywhere. Eflin is 5-2 with a 3.44 ERA in nine starts and has shown genuine progress with his four-seam fastball and rising strikeout rate. After punching out just 4.7 batters per nine innings in 2016 and 2017, Eflin has struck out 9.2 per nine this season.

The Phillies obviously wouldn't be pushing 2018 revelation Nick Pivetta out of the rotation either. And Vince Velasquez, as inconsistent as he can be, has allowed three runs or less in 10 of 15 starts. From a pure stuff standpoint, there's not much of a comparison between Velasquez and Eickhoff.

These situations have a way of working themselves out. If this one doesn't and the entire rotation remains healthy, the Phils' two most realistic options would be to try to get Eickhoff into a groove starting games at Triple A, or use him as a long reliever on the major-league roster.

The Phillies carried Drew Hutchison as the long man for the first two months of the season before designating him for assignment in early June. Since then, they've run through Mark Leiter Jr. and Jake Thompson but neither has stuck in the big leagues. 

It's unclear how Eickhoff would perform in that role coming out of the bullpen with the Phillies trailing or leading by a lot. Unlike 90 percent of bullpen arms these days, Eickhoff is not a hard thrower. His fastball sits around 91 mph, and when he's going well it's because he's spotting it on the corners and freezing hitters with his 12-6 curveball.

There's still a ways to go for Eickhoff, but if there's no other rotation injury by the time he's ready to go, he'll need to earn his old job back.

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