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How Nola got his groove back: Phillies 3, Astros 1

Aaron Nola dominates through eight and Alvarado finishes them off

Philadelphia Phillies v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In the opening game of the 2022 World Series, Aaron Nola took the mound for the Phillies in Houston and in the fourth inning started giving up runs. In the fifth, after surrendering a total of five runs, he was given the hook and Jose Alvarado took over for him. The bullpen stemmed the bleeding. Luckily for the Phillies, the offense was able to get to Justin Verlander early and pick up five runs. The game remained tied at five until the tenth inning when J.T. Realmuto’s home run put the Fightin’s over the top.

Of course, before the fall classic, the Phillies faced off against the Astros in final series of the 2022. It was in Game 1 of that series that Aaron Nola took the mound and shut down Houston in spectacular fashion, ending Philly’s eleven year postseason drought.

The Astros came into tonight’s game with a mixed bag of a winning record. They swept the Braves but dropped a series to the Tigers. Lately they’ve been on a roll, before tonight having won six of their last seven. Verlander no longer calls Houston home, but Framber Valdez, who held the Phillies scoreless in Game 2 of the World Series, still wears an Astros jersey and has loomed over every opponent he’s faced. Their bullpen is as dangerous as ever, with closer Bryan Abreu coming into tonight’s game touting 0.73 ERA and 0.89 WHIP.

The Phillies reached .500 for the first time this season with last night’s win over Seattle. Nola, who for years has served as the team’s strikeout sage, has started 2023 with a K/9 at 7.0, down from the 10-12 he’s averaged in previous four years. The reduction in strikeouts coupled with his fourth inning implosions has left the kid from Baton Rogue in a rough spot as the Phillies fight to prove themselves after a bruising season start.

Tonight though, Nola redeemed himself of his previous rough starts in a huge way. He used his fastball less, relied on his curveball more, and gave up three hits and only a single run over eight solid innings. And the Phillies offense left no doubt that they are more than capable of beating good teams.

The first inning started with some fun Phillies action. Stepping into the box with two outs, Schwarber worked a full count before getting a piece of a cutter and launching it into the right field stands, coming off his bat at 112.7 MPH.

The good time would abate, but not for long. Nola hung a fastball over the middle of the plate to Jeremy Pena, who sent it over the right field fence to tie up the game at one apiece.

The first inning would be delivered in style that is unique to the Nick Castellanos of 2023. Alex Bergman hit a long fly ball to right field. The ball would easily clear the wall and land in the stands. Casty, his back literally against the wall, jumped for it, extending his entire body, his glove rising into the faces of Houston fans. Then he fell to the ground, slumped against the outfield wall, and sat there, legs splayed in front of him, face devoid of expression. The crowd jumped to their feet, fists pumped in the air, the ballpark blistering with cheers. Bergman trotted around the bases. Nola looked on wondering if he had really just given up another run. Casty then leapt to his feet, reached into his glove, and from it pulled the ball, and with it the home run he stole from Bergman. A smirk spread across his face as he tossed the ball to Pache and they jogged to the dugout.

In the top of the fifth, the bottom of the order once again stepped up. Sosa sent a ball to the center field wall for a double. Pache then followed suit with a double of his own sending Sosa home and putting the Phillies on top, 2-1. Once again, the good times wouldn’t last. Pache slid on the dirt while taking a lead from second and appeared to have tweaked his left knee. After a brief evaluation by trainers, he was removed from the game. Marsh, who was off tonight, took his place.

In the bottom of the fifth, Jose Abreu was on first when Corey Julks hit a hit a grounder that got past Sosa but Trea Turner managed to get his glove on. The runners were safe at first and second but Turner fired the ball to first anyway. The throw got past Bohm and Abreau reached third.

No outs. Runner on the corners.

Jake Meyers came to the plate and hit a dribbler down the first base line. Abreu broke for home plate. Bohm rushed to the ball, scooped it up, and flipped it to Realmuto. Abreu slid head first. J.T. managed to put the tag on Abreu just before he extended his arm and touched the plate.

Nola ended the inning delivering a strikeout to Martin Maldinaldo, who watched an 87 mph changeup sail past his knees. Crisis averted.

In the seventh the Phillies continued to get to Framber Valdez. Edmundo Sosa hit a sharp line drive to left field and easily reached second base. Brandon Marsh then stepped into the box. After taking a strike on a bad call, he hit a 97 mph sinker up the middle which allowed Sosa to trot home, padding the Phillies lead by another run.

In the eighth, Houston sent Bryan Abreu to the mound and did what he’s done all season and sat the Phillies down in order with only eleven pitches.

With gas still in the tank, the kid from Baton Rogue came out for the eighth inning. It took Aaron Nola only twelve pitches to sit Houston down in order. When he walked off the mound after retiring Martin Maldonado, his pitch count sat at a cool 106.

For the first time this season, he looked like the ace he is.

With the Phillies up 3-1, the indomitable Jose Alvarado strolled out from the bullpen at the bottom of the ninth and did what he does best - he struck out two before getting Kyle Tucker to ground out to Stott and end the game.

Tonight’s win obviously doesn't make up for the World Series, but there’s no doubt that it was definitely cathartic. Matt Gelb posted this quote from Castellanos: “We just had their mascot stick their World Series ring in our face on the Jumbotron. I don’t know about anybody else, but I pay attention to that stuff. You know?”

We do know, Nick. We really do.

Observations From Left Field

  • Ad lib fun! Copy this and paste it into the comments and fill it in:

Matress Mack is and always has been a [adjective] douche. I hope he [verb] and spends the last of his days [verb] on one of his own [noun] under a(n) [noun].

  • I’m sure old blind Bill Cosby was rooting for the Astros tonight, but may not have known they were playing without the sound of someone in Houston’s dugout banging on a trash can.
  • Why did Apple TV+ show the Hoskins clip as Pache was removed? Decency in broadcasting is dead, at least when Kruk and Tmac are absent.
  • After being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and starting chemotherapy on January 9th of this year, Liam Hendricks of the White Sox struck out four in a training game in Arizona, and is expected to make a start in the minors next weekend. We’re elated to see him make such a quick recovery and hope to soon see him back on the mound in Chicago.
  • As @mattadelphia has pointed out, the Phillies are undefeated since signing Major the dog. Coincidence? No such thing in baseball.