MILWAUKEE -- As the Phillies move into the second half of this rebuilding season, their focus — aside from winning games — is identifying building blocks for the future.
And it looks like they may have found a big one in their starting rotation.
Aaron Nola pitched a gem Saturday night, holding the NL Central-leading Brewers to two runs on seven hits and a pair of walks while striking out seven over six innings in the Phillies' 3-2 loss (see Instant Replay). His strong work was undone in the eighth inning when Joaquin Benoit served up a homer to Travis Shaw the broke a 2-2 tie. Benoit picked up the loss.
"You hold this team to two runs over six innings, you've done a good job," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said of Nola.
Nola missed a chance to improve to 3-0 lifetime against Milwaukee by serving up a game-tying home run to Hernan Perez in his final inning but has left an impression over his last five outings, going 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA during that stretch.
"Just getting ahead in the count and getting the leadoff hitter out has been key for me," Nola said. "Those are the biggest thing that takes stress off you each inning. Tonight, I let some leadoff guys on and didn't get strike one enough."
A first-round pick of the Phillies (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft, Nola made a strong impression as a rookie, going 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA in 13 starts in 2015. He made 20 starts for the team last season and went 6-9 but saw his ERA jump to 4.78 thanks to a rough six-week stretch during which he went 0-4 with a 13.50 mark in five starts.
A sprained ulnar collateral ligament combined with a mild flexor strain in his pitching elbow brought his season to an end in late July and after a rough spring training this season (0-3, 8.38 ERA), he took the victory in two of his first three starts before hitting another rough patch that saw him go 1-5 with a 4.89 ERA over his next six outings.
He's bounced back in a big way since.
"I'm really happy for him and for us because he really turned it around," Mackanin said. "When he started off in the big leagues, he looked like a really good find. Then he went through that period when he was searching. He had the arm issue, the command issue then he got out of it and now he's better than ever. That's a real bonus."
Mackanin looks at Nola and the way he worked through adversity early in his career as an example the rest of the young players on his roster can learn from as they continue their development.
"Just because you start off real good doesn't mean it's going to continue," he said. "You have to battle through any issues you have, which he did, and now he's learned and gone through that process and is better for it. That's what everybody has to do. (Nick) Pivetta's gotta do it, (Ben) Lively's gotta do it. They all have to do it. Even the hitters."
The Phillies have had some top-notch talent anchoring its rotation over the last decade. Nola isn't quite at the level of Cole Hamels or Roy Halliday just yet, but he's showing signs that he could get to that point in the not-so-distant future.
"I try to do everything I can to win every time I go out there," Nola said. "I do every thing I can to keep the ball low, give up the least runs I can and just battle. I'm going to battle my butt off every time I go out there and give them a chance to win."