BOSTON – The Phillies owed Aaron Nola one in this ballpark.
It was just over a year ago when he took the mound in venerable Fenway Park for the first time in his career. He wrung eight innings of one-run ball out of his right arm in a taut pitcher's duel against David Price that night. The Phillies ended up losing, 2-1, in 13 innings because they didn't generate enough offense and because Odubel Herrera made a couple of glaring mistakes (one on the bases and one in the outfield) that earned him a trip into manager Gabe Kapler's office after the game. Later, Kapler delivered one of his most colorful quotes of the season and called the loss "a punch in the face."
Fast forward to Tuesday night. Kapler spoke only in awe after watching his team pull out a tense 3-2 win over the Boston Red Sox (see observations), mostly on the strength of Nola and his latest gem.
"He's so tough," Kapler said. "Man, is he resilient."
Nola had to be tough and resilient because 1) the Phillies' offense hibernated for a good chunk of the game, and 2) he pitched with traffic on the bases for much of the night.
The Phillies scored three runs in the first inning then did nothing the rest of the night as the Red Sox' bullpen retired 15 straight at one point. Meanwhile, Nola got six outs in the fifth and sixth innings with a runner on second base to preserve a one-run lead.
The stress of those innings probably cost Nola a chance to go out for the eighth inning. He ended up with seven innings of four-hit, two-run ball, one walk and seven strikeouts to run his record to 12-3 and lower his ERA to 3.51. He threw 104 pitches and reached 94 mph on his 103rd pitch.
"Pretty standard," Rhys Hoskins deadpanned. "They've got a thousand RBIs in that lineup and he went through it three full times."
Kapler briefly thought about sending his horse out for the eighth inning.
"I did consider it," the manager said. "He was good. He did a really good job. There were some high-stress innings, big pitches, some 95s. It was a lot. It was a really great performance and we wanted to hold on to that. It was the right time."
The Red Sox entered the game leading the majors in hitting. They have a thunderous lineup that features 103 homers from their top four hitters. But Jose Alvarez, Mike Morin and Hector Neris got the final six outs to close out a night of strong Phillies' pitching. Neris benefitted from the ol' at-‘em ball in the ninth as the Red Sox hit a couple of rockets in that inning, one right at shortstop Jean Segura for a game-ending double play.
Nola's outing validated the organization's plan to have him pitch as much as possible down the stretch. He will stay on his fifth day the rest of the way and that will allow him to make eight starts and pitch on the final day of the regular season, if necessary.
"I'm good to pitch whenever," Nola said. "Whenever they tell me to pitch, I'll be ready."
The Phillies' rotation is a series of question marks after Nola, hence the plan to ride him as much as possible.
"He's as physically prepared as any pitcher I've even been around," Kapler said. "He's as mentally prepared as any pitcher I've ever been around. So I think he's built for this. And, quite frankly, we're in a pennant race and he's far and away our best and most dependable pitcher so it's time to take that sort of liberty."
Tuesday night's win enabled the Phillies to stay two games back in the NL wild-card race. Both they and the Mets are 65-60.
"I've always said anything can happen in this sport and we're not out of it by any means," Nola said. "We all believe we can keep winning."
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