We are all familiar with the story about Aaron Nola in September. When push came to shove, as the story goes, Nola was going to come up small when the team needed him. It seemed as though it was an annual thing, something we could expect each September. The Phillies would be on the periphery of the playoff hunt, needing Nola to produce a solid start to keep them in the conversation, and yet he’d go out of give the team a subpar start.
2021: 32 IP, 34 H, 22 R, 42/6 K/BB, 6 HR, 6.19 ERA
2020: 35 1⁄3 IP, 30 H, 19 R (14 ER), 48/14 K/BB, 3 HR, 3.57 ERA
2019: 27 2⁄3 IP, 29 H, 20 R, 35/16 K/BB, 5 HR, 6.51 ERA
As you can see from the numbers the past three seasons, Nola has alternated good years and bad years when pitching in September. Checking his game logs from those years, you can even see that he has alternated good starts and bad starts within those seasons. Even this season, there were a few starts in September this year that made more than one person shake their head, giving the ol’ “here we go again...” refrain from underneath the towel hanging over their head.
Yet these last two games that Nola has thrown for the Phillies, first the near perfecto in Houston and then his masterpiece in St. Louis, have, forever, buried this narrative in the ground, never to be spoken of again.
If you recall, Clayton Kershaw was the victim of the same kind of storyline about his inability to win when it really mattered. For him, there was no doubting his ability to perform in the months during the season. Instead, what people criticized him for was how he performed in October. His performances in 2013 and 2014 against the Cardinals, where he allowed 15 runs in 10 2⁄3 innings, then his performance in the 2017 and 2018 World Series, one which was tainted and the other where he struggled, lent credence to the narrative that Kershaw simply didn’t have what it took to win when the chips were down. What you don’t hear much of now is this same thing talked about with Kershaw because he did what he had to do: he won when it matters. His performances in the 2020 World Series (2 GS, 11 2⁄3 IP, 7 H 3 R, 14/3 K/BB) erased any more talk about how Kershaw has performed in October.
The same thing should now happen with Nola.
On their latest episode of Phillies Therapy, Matt Gelb and Paul Boye talked about how Nola has a chance to finish higher than you think in the Cy Young voting this year, mostly due to a season in which he has been outstanding. It’s something that we all know about Nola. He is probably one of the top two or three reasons the Phillies have had the season they have had so far this year. Without his consistent excellence this year, the starting rotation would not have been the strength that it has been this year. Yes, Zack Wheeler was equally as excellent, but he also had to throw fewer innings because of a shortened spring training and late season injury. Ranger Suarez was very up and down this year, Kyle Gibson alternated good, solid starts with ones that made you want to take your contacts out with sandpaper. Through it all, Nola has gone out start after start and performed incredibly well.
These two starts, though, have far exceeded our expectations. It could be because of his past struggles, it could also be because the fanbase has a certain fatalistic sense about their team. But when the season has been on the line, when everything has been at stake, Nola has gone above and beyond what we expected of him. Let’s just hope it isn’t the end this year.