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."

Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Cardinals 1

Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Cardinals 1

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola had everything working Thursday in his most impressive start of the season,  allowing just one run on four hits over 7⅓ innings with a season-high eight strikeouts.

Nola had remarkable, Greg Maddux-like movement and command of his two-seam fastball, especially with two strikes. He fooled the Cardinals all afternoon by starting it outside to hitters from both sides of the plate and having it run back over the outside corner for called third strikes. Of his season-high eight strikeouts, five were looking.

He also had his good, tight curveball working. When Nola pitches like this, he looks like a legitimate No. 2 starter or perhaps even more.

Leaning on Nola, the Phillies beat the Cardinals, 5-1, to avoid a sweep. It was still a series loss, though, their 17th in 24 series this season.

The Phils are 23-48; the Cards are 33-38.

Starting pitching report
Nola consistently worked ahead and stayed ahead of Cardinals hitters, throwing 20 of 27 first-pitch strikes.

Nola improved to 4-5 on the season with a 4.32 ERA. It's been an up-and-down season for him but this was the kind of start that can really get a starting pitcher into a groove.

His most impressive sequences came against Cardinals leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, who may be the most selective hitter in the majors after Joey Votto. In Carpenter's second at-bat, Nola froze him with a two-seam fastball that darted back over the plate at the last second. The next time up, Nola struck out Carpenter swinging on one of his best, sharpest curveballs of the day.

Nola was on his way to potentially the first complete game of his career before running into some trouble in the eighth inning. He allowed a leadoff homer to second baseman Paul DeJong and walked Carpenter with one out before being lifted for Pat Neshek.

Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez had just an OK afternoon by his standards. He allowed three runs (two earned) over six innings with four strikeouts. Both earned runs came on solo home runs. Martinez was also a victim of poor infield defense in the fifth inning when the Phils scored an unearned run.

Martinez is 6-6 with a 2.87 ERA. He entered Thursday with the fifth-highest strikeout rate among NL starting pitchers.

Bullpen report
Neshek has been money in the bank all season, even if there are frustrating restrictions with his usage. He entered for Nola in the eighth inning and needed just five pitches to induce an inning-ending double play from Tommy Pham. 

In 31 appearances, Neshek has a 0.63 ERA. He's one of only two pitchers in baseball this season to allow two runs or fewer in 20-plus innings. Neshek has allowed two in 28⅔ innings. Dominant Yankees setup man Dellin Betances has allowed two in 22⅔.

Luis Garcia got the final three outs in a non-save situation, but he was set to enter even before the Phillies tacked on their final two runs in the eighth.

Garcia on June 7 in Atlanta allowed five runs in two-thirds of an inning in a 14-1 Phillies loss. Aside from that game, he has a 1.65 ERA in 24 appearances. He might be the Phils' closer for a little while with Hector Neris scuffling.

At the plate
Freddy Galvis (7) and Tommy Joseph (11) each hit solo home runs. 

Galvis' homer was his 21st of the last calendar year. The only National League shortstop with more over that span is MVP candidate Corey Seager (23).

Joseph added a two-run single for insurance with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth. It was the kind of hit he needed — entering that at-bat, Joseph was hitting .204 in 122 chances this season with men on base.

In the field
Cardinals second baseman DeJong had a rough fourth inning. He dropped a throw from Martinez which could have started a double play but instead placed runners on first and second with no outs.

Three batters later, DeJong couldn't handle a flip from shortstop Aledmys Diaz which would have resulted in an inning-ending forceout. Instead, everyone was safe, and the dropped ball allowed a heads-up Andres Blanco to score all the way from second. The error on the play was charged to Diaz.

On the bases
Odubel Herrera committed a baserunning gaffe for the second straight game. He was picked off of third base with one out in the fourth inning, erasing an RBI opportunity for Daniel Nava.

This just 17 hours after Herrera ran through Juan Samuel's stop sign and was thrown out at the plate by about 30 feet in the ninth inning of a tie game.

Up next
The Phillies head out West for four games in Arizona followed by two in Seattle.

They will face left-handers Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray, and then right-handers Zack Greinke and Taijuan Walker. 

The Phillies haven't yet named a starter for Friday's game.

Today's lineup: Odubel Herrera batting 3rd as Aaron Altherr gets day off

Today's lineup: Odubel Herrera batting 3rd as Aaron Altherr gets day off

Odubel Herrera made a costly mistake in the Phillies' 10th-inning, 7-6 loss to the Cardinals Wednesday night.

With the game tied in the bottom of ninth, Herrera ran through a stop sign from third base coach Juan Samuel and was subsequently thrown out at home by a mile, thus putting an end to the inning. When the Phils came out onto the field for the top of the 10th inning, Herrera was taken out of the game via a double-switch. 

Herrera won't have to wait long to have a chance to redeem himself as he was moved from sixth to third in the Phils' lineup Thursday, with the team looking to avoid having a series swept from them for a second consecutive time. Aaron Altherr, who had been mostly manning the No. 3 spot in the order, was given the day off. Howie Kendrick, who paces the Phillies with a .350 batting average, was also left out of the lineup in favor of Andrés Blanco.

Cameron Perkins, who made his first major league start in the leadoff spot last night, will bat first again after collecting a pair of hits.

Carlos Martinez will take the mound for the Cardinals looking to deliver the Phillies their 14th loss in the last 15 games. Martinez (6-5, 2.86 ERA) tossed a complete-game shutout against the Phils on June 10, surrendering just four hits while striking out 11 in a 7-0 St. Louis win.

Opposite Martinez will be Aaron Nola (3-5, 4.76 ERA), who tossed five innings of three-run ball in his only start against the Cardinals this season on June 10. Nola has been tagged with a loss in five of his last six outings. 

Here is today's full lineup:

1. Cameron Perkins, RF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Daniel Nava, LF
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Andrés Blanco, 2B
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Aaron Nola, P