MINNEAPOLIS – Things have gotten so bad for the Phillies, losers of eight in a row and 26 of their last 31, that even their most consistent starting pitcher has been beaten like a punching bag lately.
Aaron Nola, so steady so often since arriving in the majors last July, struggled again in the Phillies’ 14-10 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay).
What was more difficult to fathom, the Phillies’ feeble offense producing a season-high 14 hits and tying a season high with 10 runs, or Nola being knocked out early for third straight outing?
Frankly, it was probably more difficult to fathom Nola being lit up again. After all, the Phillies’ offense faced a starting pitcher (Tyler Duffey) who entered the game with a 5.56 ERA. If there was ever a night for baseball’s lowest-scoring offense to break out, it was this one.
And Nola wasn’t exactly facing the ’27 Yankees or the '87 Twins. These Twins have the worst record in the majors and are averaging the fewest runs in the American League.
But Nola’s problems, which began three starts ago against Washington and continued against Toronto, were present again. He lasted just three innings and was tagged for eight runs, seven of which were earned. He let a pair of leads slip away under the weight of two four-run innings, one of which came right out of the chute.
Over his last three starts, Nola has given up 22 hits, seven walks and 17 earned runs in just 9 2/3 innings.
His ERA has climbed from 2.65 to 4.11 in that span.
After the game, Nola was asked if he was bewildered by his struggles.
“Yeah,” he said. “It's tough, man. It's tough for the team when I go again three innings. I'm trying to figure something out to get back to where I'm used to being. I'm going to keep on working on it.”
Nola said he is completely healthy.
“My body feels good,” he said. “I'm all healthy. Arm and body feels healthy.”
Manager Pete Mackanin said health is not an issue with Nola.
“It’s not his arm,” Mackanin said. “He was throwing 92. He's probably overthrowing, getting underneath the ball a little too much, trying too hard.
“He's out of sync. His last three starts, out of sync. I don't know how to describe it other than he has to figure it out in the bullpen.
“I was just bragging about him before the game to (Twins broadcaster and Hall of Famer) Bert Blyleven, how his strength is his ability to locate pitches. I looked at the first couple of innings on the monitor – I came in between innings – and I don't think he hit the mitt more than a couple of times. He was all over the place. He'll get that back. But something is missing right now.”
Nola believes he’s rushing his delivery.
“It must be mechanical,” he said. “I do feel myself rushing a bit to the plate in the stretch and windup. My curveball is hanging and my fastball is flat. It’s something I’ll try to tweak for my next start.”
The Phillies came to Minnesota on the heels of a disastrous 0-6 homestand in which they were outscored 42-9. The offense rose from the dead – the Phils hit four home runs – but the pitching was not there.
“It was nice to see the guys hit some home runs and score a lot of runs,” Mackanin said. “But we lost and we just couldn't hold onto it. The bullpen let us down.”
Long man Brett Oberholtzer gave up three runs in 2 1/3 innings and David Hernandez gave up three in the bottom of the eighth. Hernandez has given up eight runs in his last 3 1/3 innings. The three runs that he gave up in this game came after the Phils had rallied from an 11-6 deficit to make it an 11-10 game on the strength of Peter Bourjos’ RBI single and Maikel Franco’s three-run homer in the top of the eighth.
Mackanin, who on Monday described his frustration level as being at nine on a 1-10 scale, seemed irked with many phases of his team’s play Tuesday night and he should have been because the starting pitching, the defense and even the base running, at times, were poor. He seemed particularly irked that Hernandez, a veteran and the only free agent signed to a big-league deal by the team over the winter, could not keep the game close.
“It’s disappointing,” Mackanin said. “I expect more out of him.”
Mackanin described himself as “flying by the seat of our pants” with his recent bullpen moves because the starting rotation has not pitched deeply into games.
“I find solace in the fact I have someone available for the next day,” he said.
It’s difficult to believe that Nola has forced Mackanin to go to the bullpen in the fourth inning in each of the pitcher's last three starts. The 23-year-old right-hander had been the model of consistency for 25 big-league starts before hitting this rough patch.
Failure can be a great teacher. Cole Hamels used to talk about that all time, how he learned more from getting knocked around early in his career than he did from the games when everything came easily. Aaron Nola finds himself in the classroom now. It hasn’t been fun, but maybe some good will come from it.
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“I’m going to try to put this behind me and fix some things for my next,” he said.