Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

BOX SCORE

When Aaron Nola pitches like he did Thursday, there aren't too many teams capable of beating him.

Nola was locked in against the Cardinals in the Phillies' 5-1 win, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings with a season-high eight strikeouts (see Instant Replay). His first seven innings were scoreless and his pitch count was at just 89, so he had the chance for his first-ever complete game and the Phillies' first of the season.

But Paul DeJong greeted Nola in the eighth with a solo homer, and after a one-out walk to Matt Carpenter, Nola's day was done. He left to a loud ovation from Phillies fans who have been waiting a long time to see this guy again.

"Well that's the Nola we all have come to know and love," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was outstanding today. ... He was painting on both sides of the plate. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups. I think he got tired in that eighth inning, but it was great to see him rebound from the struggles he's been going through."

Nola had elite command of his two-seam fastball and curveball on this day. Five of his eight strikeouts were looking as he continuously froze Cardinals hitters with two-seamers that started outside and darted back over the outside corner. Everything was low in the zone. The curveball was sharp and biting with late life, and St. Louis' hitters kept swinging over top of it.

This was the Nola worth drafting in the first round. This was the Nola who can legitimately be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do and today was me," Nola said. "I felt confident in all my pitches today and commanding all my pitches when I wanted to. It was all good in those areas.

"I always try to visualize [success]. I know what I'm capable of doing and what pitches I can command. It's just those days where you feel really good about it and you're really confident about executing to both sides of the plate."

Last year during spring training, Mackanin compared Nola's skill set to that of a pitcher he managed in 1985 in the Class A Midwest League. That pitcher was Greg Maddux. 

"I'll just say this and I probably shouldn't, but I'm just gonna say it: Aaron Nola reminds me a bit of [Maddux]," Mackanin said last February.

"He shows no fear, he's very confident in his abilities and he has the uncanny ability to locate his fastball down in the zone on both sides of the plate. And he really believes in himself."

On Thursday, Nola fit every piece of that description. And just like Nick Pivetta built confidence with his nine-strikeout performance last week against the Red Sox that carried over into a 10-K night against the Cardinals (see story), this has a chance to be a real building block for Nola.

Throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of 24 hitters will get you a long way.

"He got ahead of almost every hitter I guarantee you, he was strike one," catcher Cameron Rupp said.  

"And when you do that, that opens up so many doors with your pitch sequence, being able to pitch and get in on guys, maybe throw a purpose pitch for a ball, maybe they swing and you're 0-2 and that opens up the outer half even bigger. He threw strikes, he pounded the zone, and when you do that, you're going to have so much success. 

"That's what he did his first year-and-a-half up here. He got away from locating his pitches and the injuries, I'm sure, didn't help, but he attacked the zone and did a great job for us. ... When you do that, the sky is the limit, and he showed that today."

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Phillies reliever Pat Neshek is having a tremendous, All-Star season, but the restrictions on his usage have become a real concern.

Neshek, who has a 0.63 ERA and 30 scoreless appearances out of 31, induced an inning-ending double play Thursday to get the Phillies to the ninth with a two-run lead. He threw just five pitches in the 5-1 win (see Instant Replay).

But even if the Phillies didn't tack on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, Neshek was not going back out for a save situation in the ninth, Mackanin said.

"I asked him to go back out," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He said he would rather not, he didn't feel like he had it. 

"I would have liked to have sent him back out, obviously, because he's been so effective. However, we've got a good thing going there and if he can only pitch one inning for us, I'll take it. 

"He's been that good and I don't want to disrupt that. That's one area that I don't have to worry about. So, I did ask if he could go back out, he just thought it was better that he didn't."

Moments later, Neshek said he was not asked to go back out for the ninth.

It's the second straight day there have been conflicting messages when it comes to Neshek's availability. Wednesday night, when the Phillies blew a five-run lead and allowed runs in both the eighth and ninth innings as Neshek stayed in the bullpen, Mackanin said that Neshek had told him earlier he was unavailable. But then Neshek said that he was the one told he'd have the day off.

Whichever order of operations has actually occurred the last two games, these restrictions on Neshek's usage are affecting the Phillies late in games and they're sure to have an impact on his trade value as well.

The trade value is the more important thing here long-term because the Phillies are 25 games under .500. Neshek and Howie Kendrick are their two best trade assets, but if you're a contending team, why give up anything of substance for a half-season of Neshek if you don't even know if you can send him out two games in a row?

"He gave me the off day when I showed up," Neshek said Thursday about the middle game of the series. "I don’t know. You guys (the media) are making a big deal out of it."

Did he feel better Thursday?

"Yeah," he said. "I went out there and got the double play.

"We’ve been used a lot this week. I was kind of hoping that I might get a day today. But I understand the state of the bullpen. You have to suck it up and go out there."

Neshek has been used five times in the last seven days, so he does have a point, he has been used a lot. That's the byproduct of being your team's most reliable reliever.

At this stage, Neshek is a safe bet to be the Phillies' All-Star representative, especially because he'd serve an actual purpose in the All-Star Game as a right-handed specialist capable of retiring the best of the best.

"It could happen," he said. "There’s a couple other guys. It’s going to come down to who Joe Maddon wants for his bench. Is it going to be an extra pitcher? Is it going to be an extra hitter? They usually don’t stick with middle relief guys. Yeah, I have the numbers. But the All-Star Game is kind of a hairy thing if you’re not the star guy, if you’re not the save guy. It’s going to come down to do we need a pitcher or do we need a hitter.

"It’s really tough to make it as a middle reliever. It’s hard to get excited about anything that hasn’t happened yet."

Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Cardinals 1

Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Cardinals 1

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola had everything working Thursday in his most impressive start of the season,  allowing just one run on four hits over 7⅓ innings with a season-high eight strikeouts.

Nola had remarkable, Greg Maddux-like movement and command of his two-seam fastball, especially with two strikes. He fooled the Cardinals all afternoon by starting it outside to hitters from both sides of the plate and having it run back over the outside corner for called third strikes. Of his season-high eight strikeouts, five were looking.

He also had his good, tight curveball working. When Nola pitches like this, he looks like a legitimate No. 2 starter or perhaps even more.

Leaning on Nola, the Phillies beat the Cardinals, 5-1, to avoid a sweep. It was still a series loss, though, their 17th in 24 series this season.

The Phils are 23-48; the Cards are 33-38.

Starting pitching report
Nola consistently worked ahead and stayed ahead of Cardinals hitters, throwing 20 of 27 first-pitch strikes.

Nola improved to 4-5 on the season with a 4.32 ERA. It's been an up-and-down season for him but this was the kind of start that can really get a starting pitcher into a groove.

His most impressive sequences came against Cardinals leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, who may be the most selective hitter in the majors after Joey Votto. In Carpenter's second at-bat, Nola froze him with a two-seam fastball that darted back over the plate at the last second. The next time up, Nola struck out Carpenter swinging on one of his best, sharpest curveballs of the day.

Nola was on his way to potentially the first complete game of his career before running into some trouble in the eighth inning. He allowed a leadoff homer to second baseman Paul DeJong and walked Carpenter with one out before being lifted for Pat Neshek.

Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez had just an OK afternoon by his standards. He allowed three runs (two earned) over six innings with four strikeouts. Both earned runs came on solo home runs. Martinez was also a victim of poor infield defense in the fifth inning when the Phils scored an unearned run.

Martinez is 6-6 with a 2.87 ERA. He entered Thursday with the fifth-highest strikeout rate among NL starting pitchers.

Bullpen report
Neshek has been money in the bank all season, even if there are frustrating restrictions with his usage. He entered for Nola in the eighth inning and needed just five pitches to induce an inning-ending double play from Tommy Pham. 

In 31 appearances, Neshek has a 0.63 ERA. He's one of only two pitchers in baseball this season to allow two runs or fewer in 20-plus innings. Neshek has allowed two in 28⅔ innings. Dominant Yankees setup man Dellin Betances has allowed two in 22⅔.

Luis Garcia got the final three outs in a non-save situation, but he was set to enter even before the Phillies tacked on their final two runs in the eighth.

Garcia on June 7 in Atlanta allowed five runs in two-thirds of an inning in a 14-1 Phillies loss. Aside from that game, he has a 1.65 ERA in 24 appearances. He might be the Phils' closer for a little while with Hector Neris scuffling.

At the plate
Freddy Galvis (7) and Tommy Joseph (11) each hit solo home runs. 

Galvis' homer was his 21st of the last calendar year. The only National League shortstop with more over that span is MVP candidate Corey Seager (23).

Joseph added a two-run single for insurance with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth. It was the kind of hit he needed — entering that at-bat, Joseph was hitting .204 in 122 chances this season with men on base.

In the field
Cardinals second baseman DeJong had a rough fourth inning. He dropped a throw from Martinez which could have started a double play but instead placed runners on first and second with no outs.

Three batters later, DeJong couldn't handle a flip from shortstop Aledmys Diaz which would have resulted in an inning-ending forceout. Instead, everyone was safe, and the dropped ball allowed a heads-up Andres Blanco to score all the way from second. The error on the play was charged to Diaz.

On the bases
Odubel Herrera committed a baserunning gaffe for the second straight game. He was picked off of third base with one out in the fourth inning, erasing an RBI opportunity for Daniel Nava.

This just 17 hours after Herrera ran through Juan Samuel's stop sign and was thrown out at the plate by about 30 feet in the ninth inning of a tie game.

Up next
The Phillies head out West for four games in Arizona followed by two in Seattle.

They will face left-handers Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray, and then right-handers Zack Greinke and Taijuan Walker. 

The Phillies haven't yet named a starter for Friday's game.