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

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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: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

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Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

CHICAGO -- Paul DeJong hit a tiebreaking two-run double in St. Louis' nine-run eighth inning, and the Cardinals cooled off the Chicago Cubs with an 11-4 victory on Friday.

Chicago carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, looking for its seventh consecutive win. But St. Louis sent 14 batters to the plate in its highest-scoring inning of the season, taking advantage of a combined six walks by three relievers while improving to 4-4 since the All-Star break.

Carl Edwards Jr. (3-2) was pulled after the first three batters reached. Hector Rondon then walked Jedd Gyorko, tying it at 3, and DeJong followed with a drive into the ivy in right-center for a ground-rule double. The Cardinals were off and running from there.

Matt Bowman (2-3) got the final out of the seventh for the win.

The Cubs played without third baseman Kris Bryant, who sprained his left little finger on a headfirst slide on Wednesday. X-rays were negative, but Bryant is experiencing soreness and there is some concern about gripping a bat (see full recap).

Andrus' hustle gives Rangers win in 10th inning
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Elvis Andrus homered early, and then snapped a 10th-inning tie with a two-out infield single that gave the struggling Texas Rangers a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night.

Andrus, who homered in the first inning, hit a sharp grounder off Brad Boxberger (2-1) that forced Evan Longoria to make a diving stop. Pinch runner Delino Shields scored when the third baseman to was unable to complete the throw to first base.

Alex Claudio (2-0) pitched two innings in relief of Yu Darvish to get the win. The left-hander gave up a leadoff single to Steven Souza Jr. in the 10th, but avoided further damage by getting Adeiny Hechavarria to bunt into a double play and Mallex Smith to fly out.

Texas ended a five-game losing streak.

Rays starter Alex Cobb took a three-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth, but couldn't finish off the Rangers, who erased their deficit with Joey Gallo's double and Shin-Soo Choo's 14th homer within a three-pitch span (see full recap).

Encarnacion powers Indians past former team
CLEVELAND -- Edwin Encarnacion homered and drove in four runs against his former team, and the Cleveland Indians broke open a close game with an eight-run seventh inning to rout the Toronto Blue Jays 13-3 on Friday night.

Encarnacion, who played the last six seasons with Toronto before signing a three-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in January, hit a leadoff home run in the second, broke a 3-all tie in the fifth with a two-run double and added an RBI single in the seventh.

Encarnacion was 3 for 4 with a walk and nearly added to his total later in the seventh, but center fielder Kevin Pillar tracked down his fly ball on the warning track with two runners on.

Abraham Almonte hit a three-run homer and rookie Bradley Zimmer added a two-run single in the seventh as the Indians won for just the second time in eight games (see full recap).

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

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Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.