ATLANTA — If the Phillies are going to snap a seven-year playoff drought, they will need to add a pair of difference-making arms — one in the starting rotation, one in the bullpen — this month.
They will need more firepower and consistency from their existing lineup.
And they will need Aaron Nola to keep delivering the way he has the last dozen days.
Nola racked up his third straight brilliant start on Tuesday night and it could not have come at a more important time. His eight shutout innings led a 2-0 win over the Atlanta Braves in the first game of a big three-game series.
Nola threw a career-high 117 pitches and held a Braves lineup that slugged 64 doubles and 56 homers in June to just four hits. On a hot Georgia night, his fastball reached 95 mph right into the eighth inning. He struck out eight.
After finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting last season, Nola had been inconsistent over the first half of this season. But he appears to have turned the corner in his last three starts thanks to his finding command of his fastball. He has given up just 11 hits and one earned run over 23 innings in those starts and struck out 28.
"It feels like we have our ace back," manager Gabe Kapler said. "It feels like we have our horse back."
The NL East is a long way from being decided. But the Phillies, who went from three games up on Atlanta to 5½ games back in the month of June, can't afford to fall much farther behind if they are going to be a factor in the race. That's why this series is so important: They must stop the bleeding and stabilize. Nola made a statement in the series opener.
"It was one of the better performances we've seen from him in the last couple of years," Kapler said. "Obviously, going through this lineup more than three times is something. It's a pretty impressive feat. He seemed to get stronger as the outing went on. The fastball velocity maintained all the way throughout. In some ways, it probably got stronger. We saw a 96 pop up on the stadium gun one time. The 95s were pretty consistent. He also had some of his best command that we've seen this season — both sides of the plate, even elevated at times. The curveball was really good from the beginning."
The Phillies' bats didn't exactly tear it up against lefty Dallas Keuchel, whose fastball did not reach 90 mph. Keuchel paid the price for a leadoff single and a two-out walk in the fourth when Jay Bruce doubled home the only two runs of the game (more observations here).
Nola made that lead stand up.
"He was awesome," Bruce said. "He really set the tone for us. He had a nice tempo. He was attacking the zone and not letting us stay out there too long which is huge.
"It was pretty classic Nola. That was as hard as I've seen him throw. He was attacking. He had a good curveball and used his changeup when he needed it."
Nola wasn't the only Phillies pitcher to come up big in the series opener. Hector Neris struck out the side in the ninth for his 17th save.
But Nola was the story.
With his pitch count climbing over 90, the right-hander pitched out of trouble in the sixth inning then came out and got the Braves 1-2-3 on seven pitches in the seventh.
That earned him the eighth.
"As we decided whether to send him out there for the eighth inning, it was really about performance to that point," Kapler said. "One of the questions I always ask myself is, 'Who is best suited to get the next two or three outs?' And it felt like the answer was clearly Nola at that point."
The Phillies made a slight alteration in their rotation to get Nola the start in the first game of the series. The move also sets him up to pitch the final game before the All-Star break Sunday in New York.
"This is a big win tonight for us, especially over here," Nola said. "These guys have been playing really good the past month, month and a half. A win in the first game of the series is always big. We've got to keep stepping on the pedal the rest of the series.
"They've been playing a little better than us the past month, but it's baseball. That doesn't really matter. The game today mattered. The game tomorrow matters now."
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