The most important storyline at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday night was not whether the Phillies would extend their modest winning streak to five games — they didn’t — it was whether Aaron Nola, the young foundation on which the team is trying to build a starting rotation, would break out of the four-game slump that had wounded his confidence and left team officials wondering what to do to restore it.
Despite allowing five second-inning runs in a 6-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals, Nola did make progress (see Instant Replay).
So said manager Pete Mackanin.
“I was encouraged,” Mackanin said after Nola completed his five-inning stint with three 1-2-3 innings and six strikeouts. “He looked like his old self in those last three innings. He wanted to stay in but his pitch count got high.”
Five of the six hits that Nola gave up came in the second inning, and three of them were not hit hard. One, in fact, was a bunt. The one that was hit hard was a three-run home run by Kendrys Morales on a hanging 2-2 curveball. Nola retired 10 in a row after that. He kept the ball down, pitched inside and had movement on his sinker.
“I felt really good,” Nola said. “Even in the second inning I felt good. I just hung a curveball that Morales hit pretty well. But other than that I felt like I came back pretty strong after that inning and commanded my fastball on both sides of the plate. I felt like my old self right there. I felt like that’s what I’m used to doing and that’s what I usually do, command my fastball and my breaking ball and my change-up, so those last three innings were definitely helpful.
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“I had a lot of confidence in my pitches.”
Nola debuted in the majors a year ago this month and had a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 starts. Things fell apart for the 23-year-old right-hander over his next four starts. His signature pinpoint command disappeared and he was hit hard to the tune of 32 hits and 22 earned runs over 13 innings in four starts leading up to Saturday night.
In some ways, this start was the most important this season by any Phillies pitcher. Nola is vital to this team’s future and club officials had weighed all kinds of solutions to help pull him out of his funk.
Before the game, Mackanin said it was possible Nola could be sent to the minors if his slump reached five games. Another possible remedy to consider was having Nola skip a start.
In a perfect world, Nola would have pitched well Saturday night, move on from the slump and get back to being Aaron Nola, model of good location and consistency.
After Saturday night’s game, there was still no solution. That much became clear when Mackanin said he was not sure whether Nola would make his final start before the All-Star break Thursday in Denver. Moments later, Mackanin and general manager Matt Klentak huddled in the skipper’s office and talked about a solution.
“We’ll see,” Mackanin said. “We’re going to talk about it and come up with a plan.”
It’s possible the brass could tell Nola he’s done for the first half. Take those final good three innings into an extended break, take a breather and come back strong in the second half. To do this, the Phils could option Nola to the low minors — where he could simply idle — bring up a reliever for the final eight games before the break and use Adam Morgan as the starter Thursday in Denver.
Pitching coach Bob McClure raised the possibility that Nola’s recent struggles were caused by “dead arm”, a common but not serious condition that pitchers encounter now and then. The Phils could use this opportunity to put Nola on the disabled list and bring up a pitcher. Nola would be eligible to return for the fourth game after the break, meaning he'd miss one start.
Still one final option is letting Nola pitch Thursday.
That’s what Nola wants.
“I feel good,” he said. “My body is healthy. I’d rather take the ball. I’d rather keep going out there.
“I don’t think I have dead arm. Maybe the ball wasn’t coming out as good, but I was healthy through this month. I’ve been healthy all year and my arm’s been feeling pretty good. I think there were just some command issues and trying to overthrow. I feel like today I challenged the hitters and kind of went right after them.
“I’m going to see what they have to say, but I’m planning to make my next start. I feel good right now.”
While Nola lost his fourth straight decision, Kansas City starter Danny Duffy came within one out of the first complete game of his career. He struck out eight in 8 2/3 innings and was supported by two Morales home runs, one from each side of the plate.