Aaron Nola proves human as Phillies reach new low — a season-high 33 games under .500

Aaron Nola proves human as Phillies reach new low — a season-high 33 games under .500

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SAN FRANCISCO — Before each game, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin and his coaching staff decide who will take the lineup card to home plate. If the Phillies win that game, the same person takes the lineup card out the next day to see if he can keep the ball rolling.

The Phillies entered Thursday night's game against the San Francisco Giants having lost four in a row. Mackanin needed someone to break the skid.

At first, there were no volunteers. Then it dawned on hitting coach Matt Stairs: It was Aaron Nola's turn to pitch.

"I'll take it!" Stairs offered.

Who wouldn't want to hitch their wagon to Nola the way the right-hander had pitched lately? In his previous 10 starts, he'd delivered at least six innings and allowed no more than two runs while racking up a glistening 1.71 ERA, the best in the majors over the span.

Stairs won't be taking out the lineup card Friday night. Nola's run of brilliance ended in a 5-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants to AT&T Park (see Instant Replay).

Nola went just five innings, his shortest outing since June 11. He gave up five runs on seven hits and three walks.

"I was just falling behind in counts, getting in good hitter's counts," Nola said. "I made some mistakes and they hit the ball well."

Command down in the zone and movement is Nola's calling card. But on this night …

"He didn’t have his good command," Mackanin said. "You never want [a run like Nola had been on] to stop. But, once again, he was just a little bit off. He didn't pitch poorly. He just didn't pitch as well as he usually does.

"He got hurt in that fifth inning."

In that inning, the Giants turned a 2-1 lead into a 5-1 lead. Nola allowed four straight batters to reach base with one out. Jarrett Parker had the big hit, a two-run double on a hanging, first-pitch changeup.

Nola blamed himself for pitching behind in the count often.

Catcher Cameron Rupp thought home plate umpire Stu Scheurwater had a tight strike zone, especially on pitches down. But Nola had no qualms with balls and strikes.

"It could have gone both ways, but the umpire was pretty consistent in that area," Nola said. "I was still getting behind in the count. I didn’t think I was missing too bad, but I was missing. I was 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 a lot. I left some balls up and they used all parts of the field."

Nola's velocity was a tick down, but he said he felt fine. He added that, for matchup reasons, he threw a lot of two-seam fastballs. That pitch is not as firm as his four-seamer.

Nick Williams started a three-run rally with a leadoff homer against Giants starter Jeff Samardzija in the top of the sixth as the Phils made it a one-run game. Lefty reliever Hoby Milner got five big outs to keep the deficit at one run, but the Phils did nothing against the Giants' bullpen.

Samardzija went six innings for the win. He gave up four runs and eight hits, two of which were homers. One of the homers was a long, opposite field drive by Rupp. It cleared the high right-field wall. Not too many right-handed hitters take it up there, but Rupp did.

"It was good to see Rupp hit that opposite-field home run," Mackanin said. "That's a long poke. Williams hit a bomb. That had to be 420 feet, something like that. (Rhys) Hoskins with a couple of hits. Freddy (Galvis) with a double and a triple. We hung in there. We got behind and came back. We just couldn't convert."

The loss dropped the Phillies to a majors-worst 43-76. They are a season-high 33 games under .500. They are a dreadful 19-45 on the road and 6-20 against the NL West. They were swept three games in San Diego before coming up the coast to San Francisco.

"This California weather," Mackanin said. "I don't know. We don't seem to really handle pitchers that we don't see [often] well. That may have something to do with it. They're not accustomed to seeing these pitchers. When you're in your own division, it's a lot easier to know what's coming."

Best of MLB: D-backs clinch top wild card spot with walk-off win over Marlins

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Best of MLB: D-backs clinch top wild card spot with walk-off win over Marlins

PHOENIX -- J.D. Martinez lined a two-out RBI single to deep left field with the bases loaded in the ninth inning, and the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the Miami Marlins 3-2 on Sunday to clinch the top wild card in the National League.

The Diamondbacks, who won only 69 games a year ago but are 90-66 this season, were assured a playoff berth in the fourth inning after St. Louis and Milwaukee lost. The comeback victory ensured Arizona will host the NL wild-card game Oct. 4.

Fernando Rodney (5-4) pitched a perfect inning for the win.

A throwing error by Justin Nicolino (2-3) on Kristopher Negron's sacrifice bunt helped load the bases with no outs in the ninth (see full recap).

Cubs close in on NL Central title behind Quintana's 3-hit shoutout
MILWAUKEE -- Jose Quintana pitched a three-hitter for his second big league shutout, and the Chicago Cubs beat Milwaukee 5-0 Sunday to close in on a second straight NL Central title and damage the Brewers' playoff hopes.

Coming off its first World Series title since 1908, Chicago (87-68) won three of four in the weekend series and opened a 5-game lead over the second-place Brewers (82-73) with seven games remaining. Milwaukee began the day one game behind Colorado for the NL's second wild card.

Quintana (7-3 with Cubs, 11-11 overall) struck out 10 and walked one in his second complete game in 182 starts. He threw 116 pitches, his most since Sept. 7 last year.

He did not allow any extra-base hits and retired his final 11 batters after walking Domingo Santana in the sixth (see full recap).

Rockies beat Padres to open 2-game lead for last wild card
SAN DIEGO -- Gerardo Parra hit a tiebreaking single in a two-run third inning, Pat Valaika and Charlie Blackmon hit consecutive home runs in the ninth and the Colorado Rockies beat the San Diego Padres 8-4 Sunday to open a two-game lead over Milwaukee for the second NL wild card heading into the final week of the regular season.

St. Louis trails the Rockies by 2 games. Seeking its first postseason appearance since 2009, Colorado opens a six-game homestand Monday, playing Miami and then the Los Angeles Dodgers. At 41-40, the Rockies tied their record for road wins, set in 2009.

German Marquez (11-7) allowed two runs, five hits and three walks in five innings. He had been 0-2 in six starts since beating Milwaukee on Aug. 18. Colorado starters have a 2.52 ERA in their last nine games (see full recap).

Twins top Tigers for 4-game sweep, close on wild card
DETROIT -- Jorge Polanco and Eduardo Escobar homered, and Minnesota beat the Detroit Tigers 10-4 on Sunday to complete a four-game sweep that moved the Twins closer to securing a wild-card berth in the playoffs.

Polanco hit a solo homer in the first off Buck Farmer (4-5), and Escobar welcomed Victor Alcantara with a three-run drive in the sixth.

Minnesota (82-74) began the day 4 games ahead of Kansas City, Texas and the Los Angeles Angels for the second AL wild card. The Twins outscored the Tigers 39-12 in the sweep.

Detroit has lost seven straight and 14 of 16. At 62-94, the Tigers will finish with their worst record since going 43-119 in 2003 (see full recap).

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

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ATLANTA — The Phillies and Atlanta Braves are both rebuilding teams that have looked to acquire as much pitching as possible over the last few seasons.

The Phillies added Nick Pivetta in the trade that sent Jonathan Papelbon to Washington two years ago. The Braves picked up Luiz Gohara from Seattle back in January.

If both pitchers continue to develop, there's a chance they could face each other in a National League division race someday. 

On Sunday, they squared off in a battle of teams playing out the string, but the intensity of the matchup was good. That can happen in the penultimate weekend of the season. After all, impressions can be made right up until the final pitch of the season. Players are always auditioning, especially rookies hoping to win spots next season.

Pivetta, 24, made a very nice showing. He out-pitched Gohara in helping the Phillies salvage one game of the three-game series against the Braves with a 2-0 win (see observations).

Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr keyed a just-enough Phillies' offense with a solo homer and an RBI double and the bullpen triumvirate of Edubray Ramos, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris combined for three scoreless innings to seal the shutout.

Pivetta pitched six shutout innings, walked one and struck out four. He gave up five hits. It's been an up-and-down season for the rookie right-hander. There's been a lot of on-the-job training and a few bruisings. He is 7-10 with a 6.26 ERA in 25 starts. He has allowed just two runs in 12 innings over his last two starts, so he's finishing the season on a high note.

"The key to his outing today was that he was throwing all his pitches for strikes," manager Pete Mackanin said. "His breaking ball and his changeup, he really did a good job with them, throwing them ahead in the count and behind in the count, so that was key.

"This is the place to learn. You can have a lot of success in the minor leagues but when you get up here it's a different animal. The best place to learn is at the big-league level and take your lumps and learn from them. Now, if you have too many guys like that you don’t win a lot of games, so you can afford to have one or maybe two guys in the rotation that are feeling their way through it, but not more than that."

Forced to the majors by injuries in the rotation early in the season, Pivetta has often talked about the learning experience his first year in the majors has been.

He was happy to talk about getting a victory Sunday.

"It's been nice," he said. "I've settled down a little the last two starts. Today, I just tried to do the right things — get ahead of hitters. And the guys played great defense behind me.

"Even when I had runners on base, I was able to attack the hitters the way I wanted and I didn't put too much pressure on myself."

That's not always easy for a rookie pitcher in a close game. Pivetta's ability to stay cool and pitch around baserunners in the fifth and sixth innings was a sign of his improvement. He will have one more start before the season ends and is looking to build on two good ones and go into the offseason with a healthy dose of confidence. He will be a candidate for a spot in the rotation next spring.

Sunday's victory left the Phillies at 62-94. They need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses. That once seemed to be a certainty, but they have played well since the All-Star break, recording a 33-36 record since then. They were 29-58 before the break.

Young players such as Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins have come up from the minors and given the Phils a lift in recent weeks. The bullpen has also improved with Ramos, Morgan, Neris and Luis Garcia (before Saturday night) pitching well. Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning Sunday. He has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Neris is 18 for 18 in save opportunities since June 28.

The only run that the Phils scored against Gohara came in the fifth when Franco smacked a first-pitch changeup into the left-field seats for his 21st homer. The pitch was on the middle-half of the plate, Franco's happy zone.

Franco is hitting .308 with three homers and seven RBIs since J.P. Crawford came up and applied a little competitive heat.

Franco said that's coincidence, that he's focused only on what he needs to do to get better.

"I think when those young guys come up it always creates an energy spurt in everybody," Mackanin said. "For whatever reason, if Maikel is having a good September, I hope it carries through for five or six months next year. One month does not a good year make. Hopefully, he'll have a better approach and he's going to be more successful."