Phillies prepared to ride Aaron Nola like a horse down the stretch

Phillies prepared to ride Aaron Nola like a horse down the stretch

BOSTON – The Phillies are considering a plan to max-out Aaron Nola the rest of the way. Under the plan, Nola would pitch every fifth day the remainder of the season, regardless of whether the Phils have an off day between one of his starts.

“It’s something we've discussed over the course of the last 10 days,” manager Gabe Kapler said before Nola took the mound against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Tuesday night. “It's something that we're considering. I don't want to make any announcements. But, starting Aaron every fifth day would also put him in line to start the last game of the season -- or give us a chance to have us start him the last game of the season. It's a major consideration and one we'll talk about after we get through today's start.”

The plan can be adjusted along the way if need be. For now, Nola’s fifth day would be Sunday in Miami.

“I'm comfortable going as far to say that that's a likelihood,” Kapler said.

If Nola pitches every fifth day the rest of the way, he would make eight more starts. He would line up to pitch the season finale at home against the Marlins on Sept. 29. If the Phillies are in or out of the playoffs by then, they could adjust.

The Phillies have often chosen to give Nola an extra day between starts when the schedule allows. In his career, he is 27-8 with a 2.60 ERA when pitching on five days’ rest instead of the customary four. Entering Tuesday night, he was 23-20 with a 4.49 ERA in his career on four days’ rest.

Keeping Nola on his fifth day the remainder of the season is an acknowledgement that Nola is very good. It’s also an admission that there’s a huge drop-off in the rotation after him. That drop-off could ultimately be the Phillies’ undoing in the wild-card race. 

If the Phillies follow through and use Nola every fifth day, his remaining starts would be:

Sunday at Miami

August 30 vs. Mets

Sept. 4 at Cincinnati

Sept. 9 vs. Atlanta

Sept. 14 vs. Boston

Sept. 19 at Atlanta

Sept. 24 at Washington

Sept. 29 vs. Miami

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Phillies fans, get ready for a make-or-break weekend

Phillies fans, get ready for a make-or-break weekend

With the Mets off and the Phillies losing Thursday’s series finale in Atlanta, the Phils enter the weekend four games behind Milwaukee for the second wild-card and looking up at three teams: the Brewers, Cubs and Mets.

It was a productive series at SunTrust Park but winning two out of three simply won’t be good enough for the Phillies over these final 11 games. They need to mix in a couple of sweeps. 

That won’t be easy over the next two series. The Phillies are in Cleveland this weekend to face an Indians team that is 27 games over .500 and tied for the second AL wild-card.

The Indians, despite losing all three of Corey Kluber (forearm), Trevor Bauer (trade) and Carlos Carrasco (now in the bullpen), have been carried by their starting pitching this season. Carrasco, the one-time Phillies prospect, missed three months after being diagnosed with Leukemia.

In Game 1, it’s Drew Smyly for the Phillies and budding ace Shane Bieber for the Indians. Bieber is 14-7 with a 3.26 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 201⅓ innings. He’s been a couple of notches better than Aaron Nola in 2019 and the Indians are as excited as about Bieber as the Phillies were with Nola after his breakout season. 

In Game 2, the Phillies face Zac Plesac, the nephew of Dan Plesac. The younger Plesac is a contact-based righty coming off of a four-hit shutout of the Angels in his last start. Cleveland gave Plesac 11 days in between starts to recover. Jason Vargas pitches for the Phils. Vargas is winless and the Phillies are 3-6 in his nine starts.

Vince Velasquez goes in Game 3 against another contact righty with a short leash, Adam Plutko.

The Phillies will also face Carlos Santana in this series. Santana has had a tremendous year, hitting .282/.398/.526 with 34 homers, 91 RBI and 106 runs scored. Career-highs in batting average, OBP, slugging, homers, RBI and runs. He’s also on track to set a new career-high in walks. Santana has a higher OPS (.924) than every Phillie. 

Outside of Santana and dynamic leadoff man Francisco Lindor, the Indians don’t have much offense. They need Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, their two trade deadline acquisitions, to hit. Puig went 9 for 14 against the Tigers this week and Reyes broke a long homerless drought with a long homer Thursday. Jose Ramirez made up for an ice-cold start by hitting .327 with a 1.068 OPS in the second half before breaking his hand on Aug. 24.

Speaking of hands, Cleveland could also be without its lights-out closer, Brad Hand, who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 8 because of arm fatigue. Hand did throw a bullpen session on Wednesday. 

The Phillies need to sweep the Indians. Even if they win two of three, the Brewers would have to lose two of three to the lowly Pirates just for one game to be trimmed off the deficit.

After Cleveland comes a five-game series in Washington, which will include all three of Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

The Cubs have the first-place Cardinals this weekend but the Nationals play the Marlins and the Brewers host the Pirates. Miami and Pittsburgh are the two worst teams in the National League. Not an ideal time for the Phillies to be chasing clubs that get to face such inferior competition. 

If only the Phillies fattened up on those teams themselves. They are just a game over .500, 18-17 this season against the Marlins, Pirates, Rockies and Padres — the four worst teams in the NL. The difference in the season.

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What’s more unthinkable, pitching to Freddie Freeman or Phillies being winless in Aaron Nola’s last six starts?

What’s more unthinkable, pitching to Freddie Freeman or Phillies being winless in Aaron Nola’s last six starts?

ATLANTA — Taking two of three from the Atlanta Braves on the road usually leaves a team with a spring in its step as it heads to the airport to get out of town.

But there was a palpable disappointment in the visiting clubhouse at SunTrust Park late Thursday afternoon. Time is running out for these Phillies. Winning series is no longer good enough. They need sweeps and they failed to get one with ace Aaron Nola on the mound Thursday. A damaging 5-4 loss to the Braves left the Phillies four games back in the NL wild-card race with just 11 games remaining.

Bryce Harper said all the right things after the loss. He mentioned how the Phillies scratched and clawed during the three games in Atlanta, mentioned how they need to do that again over the weekend in Cleveland, mentioned how they still have a chance.

But a few lockers down, J.T. Realmuto’s silence was telling. He politely declined to speak to reporters.

Manager Gabe Kapler does not have the luxury of declining interviews. He found himself under the microscope for a fifth-inning decision in which he let Nola pitch to Atlanta slugger Freddie Freeman in a tie game with two men on base and first base open. There was one out. A walk would have set up a potential double play.

Prior to the at-bat, Freeman was 0 for 6 with five walks in the series. This situation seemed to call for another walk, intentional or unintentional, but Nola went right at Freeman with a first-pitch fastball and the National League’s co-leader in RBIs drove in his 118th and 119th runs of the season with a hit to right to give the Braves a lead that they never relinquished.

Earlier in the game, Nola gave up a two-run homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. He also allowed a solo homer to rookie Austin Riley in the sixth as the Braves built a 5-3 lead.

The Phils pecked away at the lead with a run in the eighth, but the comeback fell short.

Nola is winless in his last six starts and has been roughed up in three of his last four. He was accountable for his struggles and said he’s simply given up too many runs. He disputed the notion that Freeman’s hit — and the decision to pitch to him — was the turning point in the game.

“It didn’t really cross my mind, honestly,” the right-hander said of pitching around Freeman and going after Adam Duvall. “I feel like I’ve had pretty good success against Freddie. Fastball kind of caught a little too much of the plate.”

Nola is a competitive beast on the mound and those types of pitchers usually don’t like to walk batters. So, did Kapler consider taking the decision out of Nola’s hands and ordering an intentional walk of Freeman?

“Given how early it was in the game and given the fact that he's 9 for 41 off Aaron and Aaron has had a lot of success against Freeman in the past, you trust your horse there,” Kapler said. “You trust your ace. And I trust him immensely to make a big pitch in that situation.

“I think Aaron wants to go after every hitter. It's something we talk about pretty frequently. He feels like he can beat any hitter. We feel like he can beat any hitter. He had a history of beating Freddie Freeman. At that point in the game, it felt like the right thing for Aaron and the club to let him go after Freddie.”

Nola has struggled in three of four starts this month. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball in a loss against Boston last weekend but has been tagged for 20 hits and 14 runs over 15 innings in his other three starts this month. Two of those starts have been against the Braves.

“I haven’t been the best this month, obviously,” Nola said. “I’ve given up a good bit of runs and home runs. I haven’t really shut the other team down in a few games. Had a couple bad games where I’ve given up four or five runs. It’s hard to win those games for sure when you’re giving up those kind of runs.”

Harper did not realize that the Phils were winless in Nola’s last six starts.

“I’m kind of shocked, actually,” he said. “I had no idea. Definitely, that’s tough. He goes out there and puts his heart out there every single day for us. He’s our guy.”

The unfortunate irony in all this is that the Phils arranged their rotation so that Nola can start every fifth day in a playoff chase. As Harper said, he’s their guy, and they wanted him on the mound as much as possible. The strategy has not paid off, however.

“Yeah, I'd really like to be able to score some more runs for Aaron,” Kapler said. “Maybe get him an early lead and put a little confidence in him. I can understand. It's certainly disappointing.”

Nola said he’s not fatigued.

“I feel fine,” he said. “My body is healthy.”

He lines up to pitch one of the games in Tuesday’s doubleheader at Washington.

What will the Phillies’ playoff chances look like then?

Will they even still be in the race?

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