Phillies-Mets 5 things: Zeroes needed from Nola with Syndergaard on the hill

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Zeroes needed from Nola with Syndergaard on the hill

Phillies (5-9) at Mets (8-7)
7:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Mets might have to rename him Babe Bruce before it's all over.

The Phillies move into the rubber match of their series at Citi Field against the Mets Thursday feeling like they probably should already have the series win.

They led 2-0 last night and Vince Velasquez was cruising until Bruce again victimized the Phillies with a three-run jack.

Let's take a look at what to expect tonight:

1. Bruce Almighty
Bruce is not a superstar. He's a power hitter who strikes out a lot, doesn't hit lefties and has hit .234 with a .298 on-base percentage since 2014.

Just imagine what his numbers would look like if it wasn't for Phillies pitching.

In 67 career games against the Phils, Bruce has hit .333/.383/.650 with 21 home runs and 58 RBIs. Over the last two seasons alone, he's hit .422 against them with eight homers and 22 RBIs in 19 games.

Bruce has driven in more runs (11) in five games against the Phillies than any Phillie has driven in all season. (Maikel Franco leads the team with 10 RBIs.)

Bruce is 2 for 6 with two strikeouts against Aaron Nola, who starts tonight. 

2. Nola building momentum
Nola has opened his all-important bounce-back year with two solid starts. He allowed three runs in six innings and struck out seven in the Phillies' 17-3 outburst over the Nationals, then limited the Nats to one run over five innings last Friday.

In the second start, Nola struck out six, walked none and generated 11 groundballs against a power-packed lineup. 

More impressive than the numbers, though, is the fact that 49.7 percent of Nola's pitches this season have been in the lower-third of the strike zone. That number was similar last season, but the difference was he was often missing off the plate low and falling behind in counts.

Low in the zone is where he -- and really any pitcher -- needs to live. The extra-base hits pile up when Nola is elevating his 91-93 mph fastball.

When Nola first made it up to the bigs, he impressed with precise fastball command and a knee-buckling breaking ball that starts at a right-handed hitter's hip and ends over the plate. Pitchers usually need more than two pitches to be effective long-term, but the combination of that fastball command and curveball movement led to immediate success for Nola.

The Mets are an aggressive team, and every current Met who has faced him has at least one hit. Collectively, they're 8 for 20 with a double, a homer, no walks and four strikeouts.

Mets like Yoenis Cespedes and Bruce are going to be hunting early fastballs, so don't be surprised to see a few more get-me-over breaking balls than usual from Nola. Through two starts, Nola has thrown his fastball or sinker on the first pitch 63 percent of the time to righties and 50 percent of the time to lefties.

3. The Mighty Thor
The Phillies have their work cut out Thursday night against all-world right-hander Noah Syndergaard. 

Syndergaard has become much, much more than just a hard-thrower. He's a hard thrower who stays out of the middle of the plate, usually succeeds even when he misses over the plate, and doesn't walk anybody.

Through three starts, Syndergaard has a 0.95 ERA with 20 strikeouts and no walks or homers allowed. This after a 2016 season in which he went 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA and 218 strikeouts to 43 walks in 183 2/3 innings.

There will be many near-triple-digit fastballs for Phillies hitters tonight. Syndergaard has thrown 11 pitches at 98 mph or faster this season, third-most among starting pitchers to Carlos Martinez and Luis Severino. Only two of those 11 pitches have been put in play and both were groundouts.

Throughout his career, the best way to get to Syndergaard has been early in the count. His opponents have hit .333 on the first pitch, .342 with the count 1-0 and .377 with the count 0-1. Once he reaches two strikes, though, good luck -- his opponents have hit .156 and struck out in 53 percent of those at-bats.

Syndergaard is 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA in four career starts against the Phillies. He's struck out 30, walked six and allowed three home runs in 26 1/3 innings.

Two of those homers were hit by Freddy Galvis, who's 3 for 11 with two bombs and a double. Odubel Herrera is 1 for 12, Cameron Rupp is 1 for 9 with five K's, and Cesar Hernandez is 1 for 6 with three walks and two strikeouts.

4. Where's the pop?
Hernandez is hitting .317 with a .358 OBP, Herrera is hitting .292 with a .404 OBP and Howie Kendrick was hitting .333 with a .395 OBP when he went on the DL.

And yet the Phillies are 5-9 and still not scoring very many runs. Aside from the 17-run game against the Nationals, they've averaged 3.77 runs per game.

Know how many runs they averaged last season? That would be 3.77 runs per game.

If I told you before the season that two weeks in, the top three hitters in the Phillies' lineup had a combined OBP of .385, you'd think the offense would be thriving, right?

That's where the non-existent offense in those 4 through 7 slots comes into play. Phillies cleanup batters are hitting .170. They've gotten a .163 batting average out of the six-spot and a .167 from their seventh hitters.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp just haven't gotten it done. More power is expected from all three, but they all have low ceilings when it comes to getting on base. That trio combined for 62 home runs in 2016 but Franco led the group with a .306 OBP.

Just not a deep enough or complete enough offense, which is why you've heard often this year about all those big bats available in free agency after 2018.

5. This and that
• Mets closer Jeurys Familia is eligible to return tonight from a 15-game suspension. It will make a shaky bullpen that much better.

• Phillies pitching prospect Nick Pivetta dominated again at Lehigh Valley Thursday afternoon: 6 innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 11 strikeouts.

Through three starts, Pivetta -- who was acquired in the Jonathan Papelbon trade two summers ago -- has a 0.95 ERA with 24 strikeouts and two walks.

• Michael Saunders, who looked off balance through his first nine games, is getting into a groove. He has three multi-hit games in his last five, though all seven hits have been singles.

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

BOX SCORE

When Aaron Nola pitches like he did Thursday, there aren't too many teams capable of beating him.

Nola was locked in against the Cardinals in the Phillies' 5-1 win, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings with a season-high eight strikeouts (see Instant Replay). His first seven innings were scoreless and his pitch count was at just 89, so he had the chance for his first-ever complete game and the Phillies' first of the season.

But Paul DeJong greeted Nola in the eighth with a solo homer, and after a one-out walk to Matt Carpenter, Nola's day was done. He left to a loud ovation from Phillies fans who have been waiting a long time to see this guy again.

"Well that's the Nola we all have come to know and love," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was outstanding today. ... He was painting on both sides of the plate. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups. I think he got tired in that eighth inning, but it was great to see him rebound from the struggles he's been going through."

Nola had elite command of his two-seam fastball and curveball on this day. Five of his eight strikeouts were looking as he continuously froze Cardinals hitters with two-seamers that started outside and darted back over the outside corner. Everything was low in the zone. The curveball was sharp and biting with late life and St. Louis' hitters kept swinging over top of it.

This was the Nola worth drafting in the first round. This was the Nola who can legitimately be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do and today was me," Nola said. "I felt confident in all my pitches today and commanding all my pitches when I wanted to. It was all good in those areas.

"I always try to visualize [success]. I know what I'm capable of doing and what pitches I can command, it's just those days where you feel really good about it and you're really confident about executing to both sides of the plate."

Last year during spring training, Mackanin compared Nola's skill set to that of a pitcher he managed in 1985 in the Class A Midwest League. That pitcher was Greg Maddux. 

"I'll just say this and I probably shouldn't, but I'm just gonna say it: Aaron Nola reminds me a bit of [Maddux]," Mackanin said last February.

"He shows no fear, he's very confident in his abilities and he has the uncanny ability to locate his fastball down in the zone on both sides of the plate. And he really believes in himself."

On Thursday, Nola fit every piece of that description. And just like Nick Pivetta built confidence with his nine-strikeout performance last week against the Red Sox that carried over into a 10-K night against the Cardinals (see story), this has a chance to be a real building block for Nola.

Throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of 24 hitters will get you a long way.

"He got ahead of almost every hitter I guarantee you, he was strike one," catcher Cameron Rupp said.  

"And when you do that, that opens up so many doors with your pitch sequence, being able to pitch and get in on guys, maybe throw a purpose pitch for a ball, maybe they swing and you're 0-2 and that opens up the outer half even bigger. He threw strikes, he pounded the zone, and when you do that, you're going to have so much success. 

"That's what he did his first year-and-a-half up here. He got away from locating his pitches and the injuries, I'm sure, didn't help, but he attacked the zone and did a great job for us. ... When you do that, the sky is the limit, and he showed that today."

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Phillies reliever Pat Neshek is having a tremendous, All-Star season, but the restrictions on his usage have become a real concern.

Neshek, who has a 0.63 ERA and 30 scoreless appearances out of 31, induced an inning-ending double play Thursday to get the Phillies to the ninth with a two-run lead. He threw just five pitches in the 5-1 win (see Instant Replay).

But even if the Phillies didn't tack on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, Neshek was not going back out for a save situation in the ninth, Mackanin said.

"I asked him to go back out," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He said he would rather not, he didn't feel like he had it. 

"I would have liked to have sent him back out, obviously, because he's been so effective. However, we've got a good thing going there and if he can only pitch one inning for us, I'll take it. 

"He's been that good and I don't want to disrupt that. That's one area that I don't have to worry about. So, I did ask if he could go back out, he just thought it was better that he didn't."

Moments later, Neshek said he was not asked to go back out for the ninth.

It's the second straight day there have been conflicting messages when it comes to Neshek's availability. Wednesday night, when the Phillies blew a five-run lead and allowed runs in both the eighth and ninth innings as Neshek stayed in the bullpen, Mackanin said that Neshek had told him earlier he was unavailable. But then Neshek said that he was the one told he'd have the day off.

Whichever order of operations has actually occurred the last two games, these restrictions on Neshek's usage are affecting the Phillies late in games and they're sure to have an impact on his trade value as well.

The trade value is the more important thing here long-term because the Phillies are 25 games under .500. Neshek and Howie Kendrick are their two best trade assets, but if you're a contending team, why give up anything of substance for a half-season of Neshek if you don't even know if you can send him out two games in a row?

"He gave me the off day when I showed up," Neshek said Thursday about the middle game of the series. "I don’t know. You guys (the media) are making a big deal out of it."

Did he feel better Thursday?

"Yeah," he said. "I went out there and got the double play.

"We’ve been used a lot this week. I was kind of hoping that I might get a day today. But I understand the state of the bullpen. You have to suck it up and go out there."

Neshek has been used five times in the last seven days, so he does have a point, he has been used a lot. That's the byproduct of being your team's most reliable reliever.

At this stage, Neshek is a safe bet to be the Phillies' All-Star representative, especially because he'd serve an actual purpose in the All-Star Game as a right-handed specialist capable of retiring the best of the best.

"It could happen," he said. "There’s a couple other guys. It’s going to come down to who Joe Maddon wants for his bench. Is it going to be an extra pitcher? Is it going to be an extra hitter? They usually don’t stick with middle relief guys. Yeah, I have the numbers. But the All-Star Game is kind of a hairy thing if you’re not the star guy, if you’re not the save guy. It’s going to come down to do we need a pitcher or do we need a hitter.

"It’s really tough to make it as a middle reliever. It’s hard to get excited about anything that hasn’t happened yet."