Gabe Kapler always says he wants to use his best pitcher in the highest leverage situation late in a ballgame. Even at 100 pitches in the top of the seventh inning on a sweltering afternoon, Aaron Nola was still Kapler's best pitcher Wednesday.
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But just in case Kapler tried to take him out, Nola was ready to state his case. This was his game. He might have drawn on his Louisiana roots and turned into an alligator wrestler had Kapler tried to take him out.
It turned out that Kapler and Nola were on the same wavelength. Kapler only made his trip to the mound to give Nola a little breather and go over some defensive strategy. Runners on the corners, two outs, one-run lead with the ever-dangerous Manny Machado at the plate …
"At that point I knew we were going to let him have Machado," Kapler said. "It was his game. He'd earned that right. We had planned that maybe we'd go elsewhere, but when we got down to it we knew that he was our best option to go through the teeth of their lineup."
With the game on the line, Nola retired Machado, the Baltimore slugger who is now an opponent but might someday be a teammate (see story). Nola got Machado to lift a soft pop up to shallow right field and second baseman Cesar Hernandez made a nice running catch in front of right fielder Nick Williams, who had been playing deep. Neither player called the ball, which could have been a recipe for disaster, but Hernandez made the crucial play and Williams crushed a two-run homer (after Carlos Santana turned an 0-2 count into a leadoff walk) a half-inning later to give the Phillies a 4-1 victory.
The Phillies only got three hits on the day so they needed great pitching and they got it from Nola, who delivered seven innings of one-run, nine-strikeout ball, and Victor Arano, whose first career save was a six-outer.
Nola is 8-0 at home this season and 11-2 with a 2.41 ERA in 18 starts overall. He will make the National League All-Star team. And after that, he will pitch in a pennant race for the first time because these young Phillies are now a season-high 10 games over .500 - it's the first time they've been there since 2011, their last playoff season - and just 1 ½ game behind NL East leader Atlanta as they enter an 11-game road swing that will take them to the All-Star break.
"I hope so," Nola said when presented with the idea of pitching in a pennant race. "We've got a lot of baseball left. We're playing good baseball right now. We're coming together more and more, I feel like, the more we win. The more ways we're finding ways to win, I think it's pretty cool in my opinion to see everybody improve. Guys that you don't really think about as coming up clutch, they're coming up clutch. That makes it a team."
The Phillies have made the progression from quick-starting team, to surprise team and now they look like they are for real, a team that, with the right help from the front office, will have staying power in the division race.
"We never really doubted ourselves," Nola said. "We've made good additions to the team. We've got veteran guys that have been in the playoffs, that have been on winning teams, that have won championships. They know what it takes to win. I think we're following them."
Actually, Nola is the leader of this starting pitching staff. He made two starts on this homestand, won both and gave up just two runs while striking out 17 and walking four in 14 2/3 innings.
The homestand started with two losses against the powerful Yankees. Those losses, by a combined score of 10-2, were reminders that while the Phils seem to have staying power in the NL East race, October could be a different story without some upgrades. Nonetheless, the Phils bounced back well from those two losses and won six of the remaining seven games, including the last four. It took a costly error by slow-moving Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis in the fifth inning to get the Phillies going Wednesday, but they were opportunistic enough (and, of course, they had Nola) to get the win, their 30th against 16 losses at home.
The crowd of 30,943 was energetic.
With a good road trip, that number will go up when the Phils return home on July 20.
"The fans came out in a big way and supported us through this homestand," Kapler said. "I don't think it's any accident that we have the best home record in the National League at this point. I think we get a tremendous amount of support and we're energized in the dugout by days like today."