WASHINGTON — Two on, two outs, two balls, two strikes, up two runs.
One of the best pitchers in baseball against one of the best hitters in baseball.
On this day, Aaron Nola beat Bryce Harper.
Nola struck Harper out on a high, 95-mph fastball, his fastest pitch of the day. It preserved a 2-0 lead for Pat Neshek, who saved it in ho-hum fashion in the ninth (see first take).
Not only did Nola beat Harper in that at-bat, he also outpitched Max Scherzer, who entered Thursday afternoon as the NL favorite to win his fourth Cy Young award.
Nola struck out nine over eight shutout innings. Scherzer struck out 10 over seven innings but allowed the decisive two-run homer to Odubel Herrera.
In the all-important Harper at-bat, Nola went away from his devastating curveball after a couple takes. The change in approach worked.
"It's tough to account for three pitches and I think part of that is why Aaron Nola, in my opinion, is the Cy Young this year," manager Gabe Kapler said after the game.
"It is difficult for a hitter when you're only seeing a pitch a couple of times. So early in the game [his curveball] looks especially sharp, but then you feel like you're on it because you're seeing it a little better and you saw Harper take. But then you have to catch up to 95 from a funny arm angle with a little upshoot and finish.
"I watch Nola every time out there and just the dependability, the consistency, the creativity, the numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. I think today was an example, how he beat Max Scherzer."
In 26 starts, Nola is 15-3 with a 2.13 ERA. Scherzer is 16-6 with a 2.13 ERA. Jacob deGrom, who also pitched Thursday, has a 1.71 ERA. It's going to be an extremely tight race. The Phillies have the best record of the three teams, but team success doesn't have as much of a bearing on the Cy Young award as it does the MVP.
In many, many other years Nola would be the runaway Cy Young winner. Heck, he's going to get MVP votes this season.
"What stands out to me is how impressive and effective he is as he goes through the lineup multiple times," Kapler said. "I think there's a lot of pitchers around the league who hitters tend to get more comfortable with. It seems like hitters get less comfortable every time they face Aaron Nola.
"Right when we needed him most, right when we needed him to step up, he really just put the team on his shoulders and carried us today."
The win made the Phillies 69-58, snapped a four-game skid and prevented a sweep as they head to Toronto. The Phils need to take care of the lowly Blue Jays the way they failed to do against the Marlins before the All-Star break, the Padres out of the break or the Mets this past weekend.
The only thing that prevented Nola from his first career complete game was that high-stress eighth inning, the only in which he allowed multiple baserunners.
Kapler turned to Neshek in the ninth, a move many questioned but one that worked and one that Nola himself agreed with.
Neshek has been so automatic for the Phillies. He has a 1.06 ERA in 18 appearances this season, and he has allowed no runs in 57 of his 62 outings as a Phillie. Remarkable consistency, the kind every team in baseball needs at the back end of the bullpen.
Count Neshek as another player in awe of Nola's evolution.
"I had Johan Santana when he won the Cy Young with the Twins and it was him and [Francisco] Liriano and you could expect seven or eight innings [every start]. It was pretty awesome," Neshek said.
"And I haven't had that really much over the years. You're kind of jealous of the other teams who have Justin Verlander, Scherzer — it's an off-day for the bullpen for the most part."
Nola has as many as seven starts left this season, enough to perhaps get him to 20 wins. The Phillies, after all, have won 18 of the last 22 games he's pitched.
Nola's next start? That would be this Tuesday ... against Scherzer. If he can outduel him again, maybe Nola has a chance at the Cy after all.