The Philadelphia Phillies sent Aaron Nola to the mound on Monday night with a tall task. Nola was to face the 104-win Houston Astros on the road with the end of the Phillies 11-year postseason drought on the line. Not only that, but Nola had the weight of the narrative that he couldn’t pitch in big games or in September hanging over him like a shadow.
And he went out and pitched the game of his life.
Nola retired the first 20 hitters he faced as he was perfect through 6.2 before allowing two singles. He struck out 9 and walked none. Nola’s stuff looked the best it’s been arguably in his career, as he generated 15 whiffs on 88 pitches. His velocity was the highest it’s been all season, with his fastball averaging almost a full 2 MPH higher than his average. The two-seam movement on it made Astros hitters look silly when they weren’t swinging through it.
Aaron Nola, Painted 95mph Two Seamer. 🖌️🎨 pic.twitter.com/KDT8MqVBWR— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 4, 2022
The bottom of the fourth was nothing short of electric. Nola struck out the Astros 1-2-3 hitters, namely Jose Altuve, Jeremy Pena, and Yordan Alvarez, all swinging. Altuve and Alvarez both went down on fastballs.
Aaron Nola, K'ing the Side.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 4, 2022
4th, 5th and 6th Ks. pic.twitter.com/PhFl7Cdusx
His curveball was knee-buckling some of the best hitters in the sport and was unhittable. He went right at the Astros hitters, challenging them and getting quick outs. He had just four total three ball counts, and two came in the final three batters he faced. Nola was in total control and dominated the best team in the American League with a trip to the postseason in the balance.
Aaron Nola, Wicked Knuckle Curves. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/yFx8TAE2vl— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 4, 2022
Ending the Narrative
Nola’s gem in Houston was the last of a string of starts that answered many criticisms. In six September starts (and Monday’s in October), Nola posted a 2.36 ERA with an xFIP of 2.18 and a miniscule 0.90 WHIP. He fanned 45 and walked just 7 in 34.1 IP. Opponents hit just .190 with an OPS of .509. In fact, Nola pitched well enough to make September no longer his worst month by ERA.
Phillies announcer and former General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the man who drafted Nola out of LSU in 2014, had something to say Monday night about the perception of “September Nola”:
Oh, yeah. And for those who had doubts about Aaron Nola being a big game pitcher can kiss my ass— Ruben Amaro, Jr. (@RAJr_20) October 4, 2022
Dark Horse Cy Young Candidate?
Nola is not going to win the N.L. Cy Young Award. That appears to be the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara’s award to lose. However, Nola’s case is better than many may think.
Nola’s traditional numbers aren’t overly impressive: 11-13 record, 3.25 ERA. But when you look deeper, you really see the impact he’s had on this Phillies season.
Nola’s ERA is higher than it should be, and one direct cause is the Phillies defense. Philadelphia’s defense ranks 25th in Defensive Runs Saved and 29th in Outs Above Average. Nola’s expected and fielding independent numbers prove that he suffered from this, as his xERA of 2.74 and FIP of 2.58 are much more relative to how he performed. He leads all starters in Fangraphs WAR at 6.3 and is fourth in Baseball Reference WAR at 6.0. He’s thrown over 25 more innings than Julio Urias and Max Fried, two other possible finalists for the award. Nola also leads them both in FIP (2.58) and is just a hair under Urias in WHIP (0.959 to 0.961)
He also became the first pitcher since 1884 and only the second in MLB history to pitch at least 200 innings with 220 or more strikeouts and less than 30 walks. If you lower the qualifier to 200 strikeouts, two other big name Phillies starters appear on the list: Roy Halladay in 2010 and Cliff Lee in 2012. Roy Halladay threw a no hitter in his first postseason start. Cliff Lee had a 2.52 career postseason ERA in 11 starts, six of which as a member of the Phillies. Nola now has the opportunity to match their performances in October.