The last two Septembers have not been fun for Aaron Nola.
Both times, the Phillies entered the month in a playoff race and both times they fell short.
Nola was part of the problem. Not all of it, for sure. But part of it.
He made 11 starts the last two Septembers and the Phillies won just two of them.
His combined ERA in those months was 4.85.
So, isn't it something that September arrives on Wednesday, the Phillies are in a playoff race and Nola is scheduled to be on the mound in Washington for the first game of the new month?
Talk about confronting your demons head on.
"Sure," Nola said when asked Sunday if he felt he had something to prove this September. "I want to go out and dominate it. But that's the way I feel every game. I want to do well every game, not just in September. I really don't dwell on what happened in the past.
"I know I need to give the guys a good chance to win. We know we have to win ballgames because time is crunching down on us."
The soft-spoken, 28-year-old pitcher paused.
"I just want to win on the mound again," he said. "It's been a while since I got a win."
Nola is 7-7 in 26 starts this season. The team is just 12-14 in his starts. He has personally not earned a win since July 25 when he beat the Atlanta Braves with 8⅔ innings of one-run, no-walk, nine-strikeout ball.
It has been an up-and-down season for Nola, with too many downs for his liking. But that game against Atlanta did start him on a pretty good run. In his last seven starts, including the one against the Braves, he has a 3.43 ERA. He has held opposing hitters to a .159 batting average and a .507 OPS. He has given up just six homers in that span, a sign of fewer mistakes over the plate. Nola has three quality starts over his last seven and it would probably be four if his August 10 start against the Dodgers had not been interrupted by rain in the fourth inning. Nola faced 12 batters in that game and struck out seven of them. His fastball reached 95.5 mph.
Two starts ago in San Diego, Nola's fastball was up to 96.2 mph. He flirted with a perfect game and then a no-hitter, only to lose both in a late loss that he called "heartbreaking." He had 14 swing and misses in that game and 16 more in his last start Friday against Arizona. The swing and misses indicate a sharpness in Nola's stuff and bode well for him heading into September.
"The ball feels really crisp coming out of my hand right now," he said.
Nola traces his recent improvement to improved mechanics in his delivery. Mechanics, you see, aren't just for cars.
Nola determined that he wasn't keeping his balance over the rubber and that was hurting his ability to stay on top of the ball and keep it down and out of the middle of the zone. The best way to improve his balance over the rubber, he decided, was to get on a mound more. So, in addition to his regular between-starts bullpen session, he started playing catch, almost daily, from the top of the mound. It was something that Phillies radio man Larry Andersen, who pitched in the majors for 17 seasons, had championed during broadcasts. It was something, Nola said, that former teammate Brandon Kintzler said worked for him throughout his career.
"I always threw on flat ground," Nola said. "But getting up on the mound, even to play catch, is less taxing than flat ground because you're using the slope. It's what we do in the game, so why not do it playing catch? It's pretty much getting me used to the slope pretty much every day before the game. I feel like it's helping. I feel better on the mound. I'm keeping my balance over the rubber more. I think it was an issue.
"Staying longer over the rubber helps you get compact and allows more time to let your arm catch up so you can get behind the ball. My stuff feels sharper. I can tell with the fastball. If it's down and true, my arm is not falling behind, it's not leaking as much arm side. If I can keep my misses around each other, that's when I feel more on top of the ball and better with my stuff."
As frustrating as some of this season's failures have been for Nola, he's smart and mature enough to learn from them. Failure can be a great teacher if the pupil allows it to be.
"This game will humble you -- I'll tell you that," Nola said.
"I've never been one to think about mechanics too much. I've always felt like I'm athletic enough where if something does change, I can still make pitches when I need to. But this season, I feel like I've learned a lot about my mechanics. It's forcing me to keep it simple. It shouldn't be complicated."
Nola sees the playoff race the same way. The Phillies can't complicate it by thinking about other teams, by thinking about the division, the wild card or past September failures.
"We just have to play our game," he said. "If we do that, we're capable of going on a run."