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Aaron Nola is the key to the Phillies’ playoff hopes

If the Phils’ ace right-hander doesn’t figure things out, the Phillies’ postseason chances could be sunk.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After a dispiriting series loss to the Atlanta Braves this weekend, it’s obvious the Phillies need some help in the starting rotation.

The bullpen game the Phils tried to play on Sunday (and it was not The Opener, it was a bullpen game) failed miserably and should never be tried again with the collection of Vince Velasquez, Cole Irvin or Jerad Eickhoff. In fact, bullpen games should be avoided at all costs unless it’s done strategically, like the Opener, with the desired goal to force an opponent to construct their lineup in a disadvantageous way, or in the event of an emergency due to injury.

So yes, the Phillies should be trying to get a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in here as soon as possible, and there are some possibilities. Cincinnati’s Tanner Roark or Sonny Gray, Baltimore’s Andrew Cashner, San Francisco’s Jeff Samardzija, Los Angeles’ Andrew Heaney and Seattle’s Mike Leake are just a few potential options. Any of them would give the Phils a starting pitcher to take the ball every fifth day without blowing out the bullpen.

Are they awesome? No. The awesome pitchers are supposed to be the ones at the top of the rotation. The Phils’ “awesome” pitcher was supposed to be Aaron Nola, the second runner-up in the NL Cy Young voting last year.

But he’s been far less than that here in 2019.

Sure, we expected a slight regression from the 2.37 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 0.72 HR/9 and .195 batting average allowed in 2018, but after his disheartening start against the Braves on Saturday (4.2 IP, 5 ER, 2 HR allowed), no one could have predicted he would have an ERA of 4.89 that was 7th-worst among all qualified starters in baseball. His strikeout rate is down from 27.0% to 25.1%. His walk rate has jumped way up, from 7.0% to 10.0%. Opponents are hitting .270 against him, and he’s allowed 1.44 HR/9.

After a rough March and April in which he posted a 5.68 ERA, it appeared Nola was back on track with a solid 2.73 ERA in the month of May. His K-rate jumped from 22.7% to 29.6% and his K-BB% rate went from 13.5% to 19.0%. But in 16.1 innings in June, he has a 7.71 ERA, his strikeout rate is down to 21.1% and he has a 5.27 FIP.

These numbers are simply not good enough for the “ace” of a staff with playoff aspirations.

His velocity is unchanged (92.6 mph) from last year and his breaking pitches appear to have close to the same movement as last year, but for whatever reason, his hallmark ability to locate the ball has come and gone seemingly at will. Could it have something to do with the additional 44.1 innings he threw last year compared to 2017?

The Verducci Effect, a theory postulated by baseball writer Tom Verducci that many pitchers struggle in the year following a season in which they took a big jump in their innings, has been hotly debated for years. Many don’t believe the idea has merit, and there’s really no way to know if it’s had a detrimental effect on Nola. But what’s ironic is that we’ve seen this kind of season before, and it happened to the last really good starting pitcher that was drafted and developed by the Phillies.

In 2008, Cole Hamels was the NLCS and World Series MVP and put up a regular season with a 3.09 ERA and a 3.72 FIP in 227.1 innings. He officially became the staff ace and big things were expected from the hero of the Fall Classic, but inexplicably, he had the worst season of his career in ‘09. In 193.2 innings he put up a 4.32 ERA, but had the same FIP (3.72) as the year before.

Aaron Nola’s 2019 season mirrors Hamels’ in the level of weirdness, although it’s much clearer why Nola has struggled. His command has left him and his walks and home runs allowed are through the roof. What isn’t clear is why, and it’s the why that pitching coach Chris Young and Nola have to figure out.

So, the Phils clearly have issues. They need to figure out the No. 5 spot in the rotation, they need Jake Arrieta to pitch like a $25 million a year pitcher, they need Nick Pivetta to continue his recent string of quality starts and they need Zach Eflin to continue to pitch like an All-Star. Getting a top of the rotation starter would be ideal, but the availability of those arms is scant and the cost will be exorbitant.

That’s why, if this baseball team expects to play in October, the biggest thing they need is for the current ace of the staff to pitch like one.

On Episode 295 of “Hittin’ Season,” Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I talked about Nola’s struggles in 2019 and just how far apart the Phillies are from the Braves after their depressing series this weekend in Atlanta.