Phillies-Brewers 5 things: Aaron Nola picks up where he left off

Phillies-Brewers 5 things: Aaron Nola picks up where he left off

Phillies (29-59) at Brewers (51-41)
7:10 p.m. on NBC 10; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies fell to 30 games under .500 in their first game after the All-Star break after the Brewers broke out for an eight-run second inning in a 9-6 Phils loss. To make matters worse, Aaron Altherr went down with a mild right hamstring strain.

Looking to get back in the win column, the Phils send out Aaron Nola against Jimmy Nelson in Milwaukee.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening:

1. A right-field sized hole
If you were going to point to one lasting bright spot in the Phillies' dreadful first half, it would likely have been Altherr's emergence as an everyday outfielder (or Nola's rebound, see below). That makes Friday's injury that much more painful.

A hamstring strain, even a mild one, usually costs a player at least a few weeks, meaning Altherr will almost certainly head to the disabled list. Sure, wins and losses are pretty meaningless for the Phillies at this point, but the loss of Altherr will still affect the Phils. 

His injury assures Nick Williams of even more playing time. The club was already giving him starts to evaluate him, but this ensures his everyday role. Daniel Nava and Cameron Perkins, the latter who filled in for Altherr on Friday night, likely will be the ones to really absorb Altherr's at-bats. Both have led off at times this season and could move into the No. 1 hole (Altherr has batted first in the last two games). 

Considering it's a mild strain, this shouldn't be a season-ending injury for Altherr. For a player that began the season as a fourth outfielder, it's a credit to him that the team will truly miss him during his absence. He has more doubles, homers and hits so far than he had total before 2017 while putting up career best triple slash marks. 

2. Now to Nola
The Phillies' Saturday starter was the only other piece in the ongoing rebuild that may have taken the next step at the major league level. He struggled through some of his early starts and went on the disabled list but has looked back in form over his last few starts.

Looking at his numbers since he came off the DL in late May, he has a 3.36 ERA in 10 starts with 66 strikeouts over 64 1/3 innings. Zooming in further, he's had the best four-game stretch of his career going into the All-Star break. 

In four consecutive starts, he threw at least seven innings, gave up two runs or fewer, allowed five hits or fewer and struck out eight or nine batters in each game. He's brought his season ERA down to 3.59, the same mark he had through 13 impressive starts during his strong rookie season in 2015.

In full, Nola is back to being … well, Nola. He's been able to catch batters looking on backdoor strike threes with his fastball. He's utilized his curveball in seemingly any count. He's struck out a batter per inning and been able to pitch deep into games with his fast-paced efficiency.

Nola beat the Brewers twice in 2016, allowing just one run on 12 hits in 13 innings while striking out 16. His ERA against other teams was 5.32. Hernan Perez is the only Brewer with two hits against him while no current Milwaukee batters have an extra-base hit against him. Domingo Santana is 1 for 6 while Jonathan Villar is 0 for 5 with two walks.

3. Full Nelson
If you looked at the Jimmy Nelson of last season and then saw him this season, you would be convinced you're watching two different pitchers.

In 2016, Nelson issued 86 walks, the most in baseball, while also hitting the most batters (17) for the second straight season. He put up a horrendous 1.517 WHIP, 4.3 walks per nine innings and a career-worst home run rate. That was a recipe for a 4.62 ERA despite his underlying stats saying he should have been even worse. 

This season, the 28-year-old righty has been near the top of the NL Central-leading Brewers' rotation with a 3.30 ERA. How has he shaved more than a run off his average? He's posted career-best strikeout and walk rates. His K/9 rose by more than 2.5 strikeouts and his walks per nine fell two walks. That's significant progress. 

Looking at his repertoire, he hasn't changed his approach too much. He's thrown his four-seam fastball a little more than his sinker in 2017 vs. 2016, perhaps trying to move away from pitching to contact. Beyond his 94 mph fastball, he utilizes a high-80s slider and mid-80s curveball. He rarely uses his changeup.

4. The Brewers beyond Braun
Brewers slugger Ryan Braun hit his 21st career home run against Phillies pitching Friday. It was the big hit of the game, a grand slam that put Milwaukee up six runs in the early going. 

While the veteran leftfielder bats third for Milwaukee, there's much more to the surprise Brew Crew than just the former MVP. The player who made the largest headlines this season is Eric Thames. The first baseman came over after dominating in Korea. He had previously struggled in Toronto and Seattle back in 2011-12 despite being a top prospect for the Blue Jays at one point. Thames hit 11 home runs in 24 April games this season. He's fallen off some since but hit three home runs and batted .333 in his last six games before the break.

Further down in the lineup, Travis Shaw has shaken off a trade from the Boston Red Sox and cemented his role as the cleanup hitter. He brings a .296/.366/.565 slash line into action Saturday after he was acquired in the offseason. 

There's also plenty of youth excelling in Milwaukee. Santana has hit 15 home runs and provided some all-around hitting in the middle of the order. Keon Broxton has hit for a low average and struck out 117 times (the most in baseball), but has 30 extra-base hits, including 14 home runs. Shortstop Orlando Arcia, 22, has been solid with the bat while truly making his impact with his glovework.

As a team, the team has led the NL in home runs and stolen bases so far this season while posting the ninth-highest Wins Above Replacement in all of baseball from their non-pitchers.

5. This and that
• The Phillies won four of seven against the Brewers last season, a year after going 0-7 against Milwaukee. That 2015 series sweep was the only time the Phillies failed to take a game in a season series of more than four games against an opponent since 2004.

• Both Cameron Rupp and Andres Blanco have home runs off Nelson in their careers. Odubel Herrera is 2 for 3 with two doubles and three walks. Tommy Joseph is 2 for 2 while Rupp is 2 for 4 with a double and the homer.

• In three career starts against the Phillies, Nelson is 1-1 with a 6.89 ERA in 15 2/3 innings, allowing three homers in those frames.

• Maikel Franco had four hits Friday. It was his second four-hit game of the season (June 13 vs. Boston). Going into this series, Franco had just four hits in his last 26 at-bats.

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."