In the battle of regional last names (NOVA v. NOLA), the home of creole had the upper hand. Aaron Nola slung tailing, spinning, twisting seeds over, under and next to Pirates bats for 7 innings and 0 runs and received a wealth of early run support to overcome Ivan Nova, who, like so many pitchers before him, has rediscovered his good stuff with the Pirates.
Wealth, to be sure, is relative. If I and my bank account traveled back to the early Republic I could have rivaled Stephen Girard for the honor to rescue the government from bankruptcy during the War of 1812. Similarly, on this Phillies team 4 runs in three innings is an outburst rivaling even the best performances of the Rollings-Utley-Howard era. And if we project those 4 runs into the first decades of the 20th century, then, buddy, we got a stew going.
The Phillies offense jumped on Nova as soon as they could. Daniel Nava led of the bottom of the first with a single, and Freddy Galvis—aka Hulk Jeltz—invested all of his groggy, new daddy energy into a 417 foot enfilade into the rightfield seats. (Congrats, Freddy! On the baby!) Maikel Franco kept the no-outs rally going with a line single to left, but a double play from Tommy Joseph ended a threat that gave me an inkling of a pitcher meltdown.
In the third, Galvis and Franco teamed up again. After Nava hit another ball hard but too close to Josh Bell, Galvis pulled off a bunt single on pure luck. The bunt was a bad choice. Galvis got ahead 3-0 in the count, which became 3-1 on a good take. He, I’m sure, noticed that David Freese was giving him the thirdbase line. So, Galvis was trying to take advantage of Freese’s position. But he was up 3-1 in the count and seemed to see Nova well. Bunting for single is a high-risk-low-reward venture, given the other option is to sit on a pitch and try to get extra bases. Indeed, Galvis failed to push the ball far enough toward or down the thirdbase line and only reached first because Nova threw a slider to first (no error though). Bunting is hard. Galvis is probably better at hitting homers than bunting.
Franco, who hit third in the lineup today with Aaron Altherr sitting, took advantage of Nova’s mistake. He jumped on a high sinker in the middle of the zone and hit a true linedrive home run. At the peak of its flight, the ball might not have reached twice the height of the left field wall it cleared. He hit the ball so hard, the leftfielder took fewer steps chasing it than cats take chasing the new toy you just bought for it and then had to discard on the heap of unused toys slowly forming a loose beanbag chair in the corner of your living room.
When Franco hits a ball like that, I wonder what keeps holding him back. Does he have inconsistent mechanics? Does he make too much contact? Does he swing too hard? Does he swing too levelly? Why can’t he translate his magnificent power into hits and homers?
Franco’s homer staked Nola to a 4-0 lead and he cruised with it. Through 4.2 innings Nola did not allow a hit, although he allowed two baserunners on a game-opening walk and an Andres Blanco error. (Blanco later made up for it with a lunging, sliding snag deep in the hole to his left.) Despite the walk to the first batter, where he repeatedly just missed the armside edge of the plate, Nola’s control and command tonight were phenomenal, every bit the plus-plus tool we have expected to see. His first battle with Andrew McCutchen is exemplary. Nola worked ahead with tailing fastballs away, kept him off-balance with diving slurves, and then put a fastball on the inside black, which McCutchen could only watch and saunter away. Particularly impressive tonight was Nola’s command of his two-seamer. The pitch has tons of armside movement; nevertheless, Nola kept the pitch on the edges of the plate consistently for called strikes. He could get head of hitters with a pitch they wouldn’t swing at early in the count because it looked like a ball out of his hand. Then, he would get whiffs or weak contact by mixing in his offspeed stuff. It was masterful, a blast to watch. Nola now has three straight excellent start and has looked like the ace of early 2016 in the last two. He might not maintain this level of performance for the rest of the season, but it is good to know he can reach this level again.
Nola left the game after finishing the 7th inning with his 8th strikeout. He wouldn’t walk a batter after the very first he faced. And only in the 7th did he feel any heat on the bases, when Freese became the only Pirates runner to reach third. Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris combined to make the 8th and 9th innings boring, which was fantastic. The two have recently been reliable. Let’s hope that keeps up.
Don’t look now but the Phillies have won 4 of their last 6 and 6 of their last 11. Have they finally figured out how to rise above a quad-A squad? The only way to find out is to keep watching.
Have a happy Fourth!
PS - Nick Williams picked up his first extra-base hit, a double he legged out on a hump-backed line drive into the shallow left-center gap. We’re still waiting to see his power show up, however.