With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

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Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 1

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 1

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Aaron Nola made his sixth straight impressive start and the Phillies' offense jumped on each of the first two pitchers they faced in a 6-1 win.

Twenty-one runs on 41 hits over the last three games ... break up this lineup.

The Phils never trailed Friday, building a two-run lead two batters into the bottom of the first inning with a walk from Cesar Hernandez and a home run from Freddy Galvis.

When Brewers starter Matt Garza exited after the fifth inning, the Phillies greeted reliever Carlos Torres with three hits — including a two-run double by Tommy Joseph — and two walks.

Six runs were more than enough support for a locked-in Nola, who at one point struck out eight Brewers in a nine-batter span.

The win was the fourth in five games for the 33-61 Phillies. It was a sixth straight loss for the Brewers (52-47), who haven't won since the Phillies left Milwaukee last weekend.

Starting pitching report
Nola's only blemish was a second-inning solo home run off the bat of Brett Phillips. He allowed just five hits over seven innings and struck out nine.

He had all four pitches — fastball, curveball, sinker and especially his changeup — working.

It's the sixth straight quality start for Nola, who improved to 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA. Over his last six starts, he's 4-1 with a 1.70 ERA, a .190 opponents' batting average and 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings.

Nola induced groundball double plays in the first and third innings. He didn't pick up his first strikeout until the final batter of the third inning, but from that point, he whiffed eight of nine batters.

During this six-start stretch, Nola's opponents have hit .118 with runners in scoring position, second in the National League to only Clayton Kershaw.

Garza allowed two first-inning runs before holding the Phillies scoreless over the next four frames. He walked three, struck out four, and stranded the bases loaded with one out in the second inning.

Bullpen report
Pat Neshek struck out two during a scoreless eighth inning. His ERA is down to 1.14. The only two relievers in the majors with a lower ERA are Pirates closer Felipe Rivero (0.70) and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen (0.88).

Hector Neris pitched a clean ninth.

The Phillies have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors since June 26 at 1.84.

At the plate
Galvis has 11 homers and 41 RBIs on the season. He's hitting .252 with a .728 OPS, a respectable mark for a shortstop with a glove like his. He's on pace for 19 home runs, a season after hitting a career-high 20. 

Notable players who have more at-bats and fewer home runs than Galvis' 31 since the start of 2016: Christian Yelich, Buster Posey, Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts. 

No, he doesn't get on base enough, but the good has vastly outweighed the bad with Galvis this season.

Leading 2-1 in the sixth, the Phillies added four insurance runs on Joseph's double off the center-field wall, a bases-loaded walk by Hernandez and a sac fly from Galvis. These are important at-bats moving forward for Joseph and Hernandez, who have Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery at Triple A breathing down their necks.

Hernandez walked twice and was hit by a pitch. Since returning from the DL, he's reached base in 9 of 21 plate appearances.

The Phillies were ecstatic to see a Brewers team without Ryan Braun, who missed the game with wrist and calf issues. Braun may be the foremost active Phillie killer and his numbers at Citizens Bank Park are insane — .383 batting average, 10 homers, 29 RBIs and his highest OPS (1.150) in any park.

A new Franco?
Prior to Friday's game, Pete Mackanin opined that the reason behind Maikel Franco's recent successful run is a more level swing (see story). Mackanin thinks that Franco is focusing less on lofting the ball and the result is more plate coverage.

Franco went 1 for 4 Friday with a sharply hit single between third and short.

Howie's back
Howie Kendrick (hamstring) was activated off the DL Friday and Brock Stassi was optioned to Triple A. Kendrick did not start but had a pinch-hit single up the middle in the eighth. Mackanin plans to play him every day if Kendrick shows this weekend that he's fully healthy. The Phils want him to get as many plate appearances as possible ahead of the July 31 trade deadline (see story).

Kendrick is hitting .354 with an .887 OPS. Plenty of contending teams could use him, especially because of his positional versatility.

Health check
Daniel Nava exited in the seventh inning with a hamstring injury and is day to day. He missed just under two weeks in May with a right hamstring strain, which he said was the first of his career.

Up next
The three-game series continues Saturday night at 7:05 when Jeremy Hellickson (6-5, 4.44) opposes Brewers left-hander Brent Suter (1-1, 3.09).

Phillies-Brewers 5 things: Nick Williams, Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola look to keep rolling

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USA Today Images/CSN

Phillies-Brewers 5 things: Nick Williams, Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola look to keep rolling

Phillies (32-61) vs. Brewers (52-46)
7:05 p.m. on NBC10; Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies are back at Citizens Bank Park this weekend to begin a season-long 10-game homestand. First up are the Milwaukee Brewers, who the Phils just faced last weekend at Miller Park coming out of the All-Star break.

1. A rare series win
The Phils took two of three in Miami earlier this week for their first win in a three-game series since June 2-4 vs. the Giants.

It was only the second series win of at least three games for the Phillies since they swept the Braves April 21-23 to improve to 9-9.

So from that Braves series in April through the Marlins series this week, the Phillies went 1-18-1 in series lasting at least three games.

The Phils' back-to-back wins in Miami were a result of actual, real-life offense. They scored 15 runs on 33 hits Tuesday and Wednesday.

2. The Nick Williams effect
This feels like the first time all season the Phillies' three- and four-hitters are locked in simultaneously.

Nick Williams is hitting .316 with a .963 OPS through 16 games with four doubles, two triples, three home runs and 12 RBIs. His 11 RBIs since the All-Star break lead the majors.

Over his last four games, Williams is 8 for 18 with six extra-base hits and 10 of those RBIs.

He continues to drive the ball with authority to the opposite field. He's shown an ability to let the ball get deep and still make solid contact on pitches on the outside corner.

The next step for Williams will be handling velocity on the inner portion of the plate and perhaps up in the zone. If he can do that and show some pull power, the adjustment for pitchers won't be so simple.

3. Don't forget about Franco
Maikel Franco, whose recent success led manager Pete Mackanin to move him back to the cleanup spot, has gone 11 for 25 (.440) with four doubles, a homer, seven RBIs, three walks and one strikeout since the All-Star break.

But Franco's run goes a bit further back. Over his last 32 games and 141 plate appearances, he's hit .276/.340/.528 with 11 doubles, seven homers, 22 RBIs and more walks (13) than strikeouts (12).

As a result, Franco's batting average (.233) is the highest it's been since April 12. His OPS (.698) is the highest it's been since May 4.

In Miami, we saw Franco consistently square up the baseball — line drives up the middle, down the third-base line and over the leftfielder's head. Most importantly, these line drives came on pitches that were not right down the middle and in Franco's swing path. He's been able to reach pitches on the outside corner, which for so much of this season have given him trouble and caused wild swings.

Franco still has plenty of time to change the story of his 2017 season. He may still end up with a sub-.250 batting average and an OBP right around .300, but he's also on pace for 31 doubles, 24 homers and 91 RBIs. He finished 2016 with 23 doubles, 25 homers and 88 RBIs.

4. Brewers skidding
Milwaukee holds a narrow one-game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central after losing five straight games, including a four-game sweep this week at the hands of the Pirates.

The Brewers have spent 64 of the season's 108 days in first place and held their biggest lead (5½ games) as recently as July 15.

Milwaukee's losing streak began last Sunday when Jeremy Hellickson and the Phillies beat them, 5-2. The Brew Crew then dropped four straight to the Pirates with each game decided by one or two runs.

Since homering and driving in four runs against the Phillies in the first game of the second half, Ryan Braun is 4 for 16, all singles. He's also dealing with calf and wrist issues.

We all know how much Braun loves this ballpark, though, so don't be surprised if he plays through the pain this weekend. In 29 career games at CBP, Braun has hit .383 with 10 homers, 29 RBIs and by far his highest OPS (1.150) at any venue.

5. This and that
• Don't overlook the importance of Cesar Hernandez's return to the Phillies' lineup. In Miami, he reached base in 6 of 16 plate appearances and saw 66 pitches, an average of 4.13 per plate appearance.

To put that average in perspective, Brett Gardner leads all leadoff hitters this season with 4.24 pitches per plate appearances, followed by George Springer at 4.08. Hernandez is eighth at 3.95.

• Aaron Nola, pitching like an ace lately, gets the start tonight for the Phillies. He has a 1.78 ERA and .186 opponents' batting average over his last five starts with 41 strikeouts in 35⅓ innings. All five were quality starts, including last Saturday when he allowed two runs in six innings with seven K's in Milwaukee.

Nola is 6-6 with a 3.54 ERA on the year.

• Veteran right-hander Matt Garza (4-4, 3.84) starts for the Brewers. Garza is having a rebound season after two straight dismal years in Milwaukee. He's no longer much of a strikeout threat with just one start all season with more than five K's. But even without missing many bats, Garza has been able to get key outs — his opponents have hit .167 with two outs and runners in scoring position.