For six innings, Aaron Nola mowed through the Marlins' lineup with ease in his return to the Phillies' rotation. He worked quickly, commanded his fastball low and on the corners and generated soft, early contact to outduel Miami ace Jose Fernandez on a night when Fernandez struck out 14 batters.
The Phillies saw exactly what they needed to see from Nola, who allowed 30 runs in 18 innings over his last five starts, by far the worst stretch of his baseball life. Things are never as good as they are on a hot streak nor as bad as they are during a slump, and it was pretty clear that Nola just wasn't himself in June.
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Nola couldn't make it out of the fourth inning during his horrific five-start stretch. He fell behind more hitters than he got ahead of. A pitcher whose calling card is control and command walked three batters in two straight starts and then hit three batters in the next. At times Nola didn't know where the ball was going, a la Roy Halladay in 2013, and he failed to make adjustments in real time.
Thus the 16-day layoff. The Phillies skipped Nola's final start before the All-Star break, giving him sufficient time to rest his arm and clear his mind. He came out Monday night and had the look of a pitcher who used that time off to his benefit. Nola needed just 68 pitches to complete six innings against the Marlins, allowing no runs on two hits with five strikeouts in a game the Phils eventually lost, 3-2, in 11 innings (see Instant Replay).
"I think he was back to being himself, he was confident," catcher Cameron Rupp said. "He probably had a little fatigue [in June]. First full big-league season, just 23 years old. It seemed like he went seven, eight innings in almost every start, so he probably just ran out of juice."
The only thing that kept Nola from going deeper into the game Monday was an Adeiny Hechavarria line drive back to the mound that hit him. It got him on the "fleshy part" of his right arm, said manager Pete Mackanin, who removed him after the inning to avoid letting it tighten up. It was a good sign that Nola was able to finish the sixth, recording the final two outs around his only walk. Physically, Nola seems fine. Mackanin also wanted to make sure he got his pitcher out on a positive note.
"He was painting to both sides of the plate," Mackanin said. "He was outstanding, keeping the ball down, at and below the knees. It was great to see, very encouraging."
The two relievers that followed Nola, Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris, preserved the Phils' two-run lead, which was built on a hustle play by Odubel Herrera in the first inning and a 405-foot blast by Tommy Joseph in the sixth. The Phils did little else offensively against Fernandez, who at one point retired 16 of 18 batters, 12 of them with strikeouts.
The Marlins entered the ninth inning with just two hits, but the middle of their order got to typically reliable Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez. Christian Yelich drove in the first run with a one-out RBI double, and after a Giancarlo Stanton walk, Marcell Ozuna singled in the tying run with two outs. It was just the third blown save for Gomez in 28 opportunities.
About 50 minutes later, Martin Prado delivered the game-winning hit for the Fish, homering off Brett Oberholtzer. The Phillies lost, but if you asked their front office whether it would have preferred a Nola gem in a loss or a poor outing from him in a win, it would have absolutely signed up for the former.
Nola was eager to throw meaningful pitches and the Phillies were eager to see one of their building blocks rebound from a month he'd like to forget.
"That was the longest stretch during the season that I've had off so I was definitely ready to get back out there," Nola said. "Throwing some side sessions and live [batting practice], it's just not the same. I was itching to get back out on the mound and it felt good.
"I think [the time off] helped me. I had a lot of support behind me and a lot of advice. ... just staying positive and believing in yourself."
For now, the speculation about a DL stint or a possible demotion to Triple A can be curbed. Nola's next start will be Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, his next chance to continue digging out of depths he'd never before seen.