Baseball games last for nine innings and approximately three hours. After an endless succession of starts from Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, David Buchanan, and Sean O'Sullivan, I had almost forgotten that baseball games were that long. Last season, writing these recaps was easy enough. The starting pitcher gives up 6 runs, the Phillies score none. Write the recap in the 4th inning, turn the game off. Hit post when the game ends. It was easy, but it wasn't fun.
This current Phillies team is fun to watch. Each starting pitcher is good enough to keep the the game interesting into the late innings the majority of the time and the offense is poor enough to not put the opposition away too early. The result: suspense. That's good. We watch sports because they make us feel things--joy, sadness, anger--but they can't make us feel much of anything without some level of suspense, some level of uncertainty in the outcome.
Aaron Nola started for the Phillies today and, through seven innings, made us all forget that the lazy Greg Maddux comparisons are just that. It took him only 77 pitches to get through seven innings, during which he held the Nationals scoreless, gave up two hits, and struck out seven. His curveball was so outstanding that even Bryce Harper whiffed on it. You might be thinking at this point something like, "hey 77 pitches sounds like an awfully small number for a guy throwing that well!" You wouldn't be wrong to think that. In fact, Nola was on pace for a #Maddux, the rare occurrence of a complete game shutout requiring fewer than 100 pitches. Players like that typically finish games.
But, there are some potential considerations that justify pulling Nola early. First, and least compelling, is the need for runs. Nola's spot was up in the order in the top of the 8th inning. Pete Mackanin chose to pinch hit with Emmanuel Burriss. Aaron Nola might be a better hitter than Burriss, and whatever edge the latter may have disappears when bunting. Nevertheless, Burriss bunted, was out, and wasted pulling Nola.
There are two other compelling considerations, though. Today's game was delayed because of rain. It's likely that Aaron Nola had to warm up multiple times. That has to be taken into account with pitch counts, and maybe the Phillies were wise to be cautious. It was also cold and rainy during the game, which isn't great weather for muscles to stay loose. For the record, I would have kept Nola in, but it's certainly not an indefensible decision.
The Phillies didn't score in the eighth, even after pinch hitting for Nola and their bullpen got into some trouble in the bottom of the inning. After striking out Stephen Drew to start the inning, Dalier Hinojosa walked Pedro Severino and allowed runners to get to first and third with two outs after a single from Matt den Dekker. Elvis Araujo then came in and proceeded to walk Anthony Rendon to load the bases for Bryce Harper. Luckily, Araujo was able to strike out Harper on three straight sliders to end the inning.
The Phillies spent eight innings going nothing offensively, but that changed in the ninth. Odubel Herrera led off with a single and Freddy Galvis, after some ill-advised failed bunt attempts, came to his senses and doubled a ball to the left field wall to put runners at second and third. They walked Franco to load the bases with no outs. After some platoon shenanigans that ended with Darin Ruf facing Jonathan Papelbon, Ruf struck out for the first out. Hope was lost.
But then, Cameron Rupptured the Nationals defense with a fly ball to right field that Bryce Harper misplayed, which allowed both Herrera and Galvis to score. Later in the inning, David Lough hit a ball that deflected off Papelbon's glove and then past Stephen Drew for Franco to score.
The ninth inning belongs to Jeanmar Gomez, I guess, so he came in for the save. It wasn't pretty, and it often isn't when your closer doesn't generate a ton of strikeouts, but Gomez faced only three batters to close out the game.
The Phillies are now 12-10. The last time they were two games over .500 was October 2012. They likely won't continue to play this well. The pitching will be worse than it has been and the offense probably won't be much better. But, for the first time in two years, the Phillies are fun to watch again. Just six months ago, sitting through a Phillies game would have elicited a confession from even the most hardened criminal. Now, we're begging for more curveballs.