When last we saw Aaron Nola, the Phillies were mired in the midst of a five-game losing streak, culminating in an embarrassing and frustrating sweep at the hands of the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field.
In the middle game last Wednesday, manager Rob Thomson gave the ball to his No. 2 starter in the hopes he would shut the Cubs’ lineup down and help end their losing streak at three. For four innings, it looked like he was going to do just that.
Aaron Nola, K'ing the Side.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 29, 2022
6Ks thru 3. pic.twitter.com/4qnxiu91qV
Then, as it often does with the Phils’ right-hander, one inning — one pitch, really — did him in.
Ok Aaron Nola isn’t ending that narrative tonight pic.twitter.com/XKanB6IBqQ— Starting 9 (@Starting9) September 29, 2022
When all was said and done, Nola had turned a 1-1 tie into a 4-1 deficit, and with a bogged-down offense that afforded their pitchers no room for error, it was enough to deflate a Phillies team drowning in their own postseason aspirations, and further fueled the narrative that he simply cannot come through in September.
Very very rarely, if ever, do you see this type of frustration from Aaron Nola— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) September 29, 2022
Phillies have lost 5 straight, 10 of 13 on the road. Need to comeback tonight #SeptemberScaries pic.twitter.com/v0L8OsIR6n
Five days later, Aaron Nola has a chance to end all that, against the best team in the American League.
When the Phillies face the Astros in Houston tonight, their magic number whittled to one, it will be Nola’s 203rd career start. He has thrown 1,221.2 innings. He has faced exactly 5,000 batters and struck out 1,371 of them. Since his debut in 2015, only five pitchers — Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, have more fWAR among qualified starters. Nola has thrown the 7th-most innings and piled up the 5th-most strikeouts, with a 3.62 ERA that is 43rd out of 218 pitchers.
He has never thrown a postseason pitch, but that would all end with a victory tonight.
Nola’s September pasts have haunted him forever, and fans are quick to jump on every one of his mistakes in the season’s final month. Certainly, allowing four runs in a must-win game his last time out was not be helpful, and Nola’s career 4.39 ERA is high for him. The only month in which he’s pitched worse is June, with a 4.42 ERA.
But none of this is new information. Nola’s lackluster Septembers are well documented and, in 2022, he’s been quite good, with a 2.93 ERA. Opponents are hitting a meager .212/.268/.308 against him in 27.2 innings, with a 36/7 K/BB ratio.
As is often the case with Nola, in every month, he’ll be unhittable for a series of innings, only to be damaged in one inning. Often times, like in Chicago, it’s one poorly-located ball that ends up in the seats. And to be fair, the offense must do its part against Lance McCullers, an excellent starting pitcher who will be on a pitch count after missing his last start with an illness.
After all the criticism, all the naysayers, all the doubters, Aaron Nola has an opportunity tonight to quash it all. He has a chance to be the reason why his teammates will be dancing on the field, spraying themselves with champagne in the clubhouse, and wearing post-game T-shirts with the Phillies logo on them and the word “Playoffs” next to it, scenes not witnessed in these parts in 11 years.
Aaron Nola has a chance not only to end a decade-plus postseason drought, he has a chance to bury the demons that have haunted him these Septembers past.