The 17 runs were great, but Aaron Nola's performance was even better

The 17 runs were great, but Aaron Nola's performance was even better


Citizens Bank Park rocked like the good ol' days of Jimmy, Chase and Ryan on Saturday night thanks to an offensive explosion that saw the home team score a club-record 12 runs in the first inning en route to a 17-3 victory over the Washington Nationals in front of a giddy crowd of 37,241.
But in the grand scheme, the Phillies' offensive deluge was really just a subplot to what mattered most.
Aaron Nola returned to the mound in a regular season game for the first time since going to the sidelines with an elbow injury July 28, 2016, and the right-hander, hugely important to this team in the present and future, put a lot of minds at ease with six strong innings of work.
"The big story for me was Nola," manager Pete Mackanin said. "I think he needed a good performance for his own confidence and I saw a lot of what we’re looking for out of him."
Nola commanded his pitches down in the zone and had some of that old tail on his two-seam fastball. He gave up three runs on seven hits and two walks. He struck out seven.
Nola got a nice lift from third baseman Maikel Franco, who turned a nifty 5-3 double play to get the pitcher out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning. The Phillies' bats then went crazy against Jeremy Guthrie in the bottom of the inning and Nola took a 12-0 lead to the mound in the second inning. He responded by striking out the side.
"I felt really good with my pitches tonight (and) pretty much with my command," Nola said. "I missed (his spots) with a couple of pitches that got hit and they scored some runs. But my body felt great. It just felt great to get back out at Citizens Bank again.

"I'm healthy. I know a lot of people are wondering, or have been wondering, or are still wondering, but I'm healthy. And I feel great. I just want to stay healthy and maintain that for the remainder of the year."
Nola was also part of the Phillies' offensive onslaught. He had one of the team's 15 hits, drew a walk and scored two runs, one of which came in the biggest first inning in team history.
"Any time you score runs like that it’s going to be giddy and electric," Nola said. "It was fun. The dugout was fun."
Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders and Tommy Joseph all had two hits in the first inning. Kendrick had a bases-loaded triple in the inning. Saunders finished the night with a single, double and triple. Cam Rupp and Andres Blanco both homered in the game.
Joseph came into the game 0 for 13 on the young season. Both of his hits in the first inning drove in runs. Blanco playfully left two game balls, dated and marked with Hit 1 and Hit 2, in Joseph's locker after the game.
"It was kind of incredible," Joseph said of the first inning. "Just one of those things that kept going and going and escalated. It was really fun to be a part of. Even Nola was a part of it, too, which was pretty awesome. It was a lot of fun to see what we were able to do."
It was not fun for Guthrie. His 38th birthday got off to a good start when he was summoned from the minors to make the spot start for Washington. It went downhill shortly after taking the mound. He faced 12 batters in the first inning and only got two outs. He allowed 10 base runners and 10 runs.
Guthrie has pitched 12 seasons in the majors, but spent all of last season in the minors and went to spring training as a non-roster player with Washington. It's not unreasonable to wonder if he'll ever pitch in the majors again.
"It's just a huge disappointment to put that kind of effort forward," Guthrie said. "Warming up, I had every anticipation that today would be a good day on the mound, and it just wasn't.
"I didn't locate early, and the first couple guys got hits. And after that, finding the strike zone seemed like a real struggle. When I found it, it was more of the zone than it was an actual location. And the stuff wasn't crisp. I always knew I was one pitch away, but that one pitch just never came."
The Phillies' big first inning came after they scored six unanswered runs after being down 7-0 in Friday's series opener.
"Honestly, I think it's a testament to what we did yesterday being down seven runs and coming back," Saunders said. "We didn't win the game but getting within one swing of the bat and getting to their bullpen and carrying that momentum into today was big."
The assignment will be a lot more difficult for the Phillies when they face Stephen Strasburg in the series finale Sunday afternoon.
Maybe the Phillies should have eased up Saturday night and saved a few runs.
"No," Saunders said. "You're never content."

Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

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Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge circled the bases for the 50th time this season, breaking Mark McGwire's major league record for home runs by a rookie, and returned to the Yankees dugout to exchange handshakes, hugs and high-fives with excited teammates.

And then, he walked up the steps and back onto the field.

Embarrassed by the attention, he managed four short waves with his right hand before heading back to the bench just three seconds later.

"They kind of told me: `You got to go out there. You got to go out there,'" he would later recall. "First curtain call. I hope it was a good one."

Judge had his second straight two-homer game in an 11-3 rout of Kansas City on Monday. On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the Yankees won for the 16th time in 22 games during a playoff push that earned no worse than a wild card.

The 6-foot-7, 25-year-old slugger tied McGwire's 1987 mark with a two-run drive to right-center off Jakob Junis (8-3) in the third inning that put New York ahead 3-0, driving a 93 mph high fastball 389 feet about a half-dozen rows into the right field seats (see full recap).

Russell makes food run, Cubs beat Cards to near clinch
ST. LOUIS -- Say cheese!

Addison Russell and the Chicago Cubs were all smiles after moving within a victory of another division title Monday night.

Russell hit a three-run double in the first inning, then made a food run for a fan in enemy territory while the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 10-2. Chicago can wrap up the division with a win Tuesday against the Cardinals or a loss by Milwaukee against Cincinnati.

Russell helped the Cubs get to starter Luke Weaver (7-2) early, then made some friends out of rival fans. After diving into the stands chasing a foul ball down the third-base line and spilling a man's tray of chips, Russell emerged from the dugout a few innings later with a plate of nachos and delivered it to the fan. Russell stopped to take a selfie before heading back to play shortstop.

"That was pretty entertaining," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said (see full recap).

Donaldson, Blue Jays stop Red Sox winning streak at 6
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox would like to get the AL East wrapped up quickly so they can start resting some banged-up players.

Josh Donaldson homered and drove in three runs, powering the Toronto Blue Jays past the first-place Red Sox 6-4 on Monday night.

Boston's six-game winning streak was snapped and its magic number to clinch a second straight division title remained at three. The Red Sox lead the second-place New York Yankees, who beat Kansas City earlier in the day, by four games with six remaining.

But the most important thing for the Red Sox was the loss of two key players to injuries. For how long? They don't know yet.

Eduardo Nunez and Mookie Betts both left the game early. Nunez aggravated a right knee injury that sidelined him for 13 games, and Betts came out with pain in his left wrist (see full recap).

Rangers fall to Astros, wild-card hopes fading
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Marwin Gonzalez had four hits and three RBIs as the AL West champion Houston Astros beat Texas 11-2 on Monday night, putting the Rangers on the brink of elimination in the wild-card race.

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, the American League leader with 199 hits and a .348 batting average, left in the eighth inning after he was hit by a 95 mph fastball. The team said X-rays were negative and Altuve had a bruised forearm.

Gonzalez had two hits and scored twice in an eight-run fourth, including a two-run single that chased starter Andrew Cashner (10-11). Gonzalez later hit his 23rd homer, a solo shot in the sixth.

Collin McHugh (4-2) struck out six while throwing 112 pitches in five innings. The right-hander is 15-0 with a 2.94 ERA in 19 starts in September or October during his four seasons with the Astros (see full recap).

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss


Before beginning a season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeouts Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re a left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year," (see story)

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five [reliable] guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”