The Phillies hoped two weeks of rest and some minor mechanical tweaks would help a struggling Aaron Nola get back on track.
Instead, Nola’s latest outing, one that laid the groundwork for a 6-4 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday night, produced more of the same frustrating results that have plagued him throughout a disappointing season.
With Zach Eflin on the good old fashioned injured list, relievers Bailey Falter and JD Hammer on the COVID-related injured list, and a bullpen game on tap Wednesday night, the Phillies desperately needed their former ace to deliver against a depleted Yankees lineup that featured several relative unknowns and a 37-year-old .191 hitter in Brett Gardner.
Even with the conditions decidedly in his favor, Nola did not deliver.
Things began well enough as he held the Yankees to one run through four innings. However, he did so while running up his pitch count into the 80s by the fifth inning before ultimately surrendering a 2-1 lead.
With Greg Allen on third base and one away, Nola recorded the second out of the inning on a Tyler Wade liner to shortstop Didi Gregorius. As Allen went back to the third base bag, Gregorius threw an aimless grenade past Ronald Torreyes, allowing the tying run to score.
One pitch later, the Yankees had the lead when that aforementioned 37-year-old .191 hitter, one who entered the night with three homers in 199 at-bats this season, took Nola out over the short porch in right.
Brett Gardner home run gives the Yankees a lead! pic.twitter.com/H1N0AHaZEM
— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) July 21, 2021
“He struggled a little bit with some command. Some walks hurt him, made some mistakes it looked like in the middle of the plate tonight,” Joe Girardi said of Nola after the game. “He hasn’t been out there for awhile, obviously, because of COVID protocols. He gave us an opportunity to win this game. We struggled a little bit swinging the bats early.”
In a vacuum, it’s hard to crush Nola for what happened in the fifth inning.
After all, the Gregorius error allowed the tying run to score. Gardner’s home run carried an expected batting average of .050 and would have been a routine flyout in 29 other Major League stadiums.
Problem is, it’s difficult to view what unfolded in a vacuum because the sequence was emblematic of his season-long struggles.
Bad luck proceeds a poor pitch at an inopportune time — the 2021 Aaron Nola story.
An inning later, whatever remaining benefit of the doubt Nola had left evaporated when he surrendered a 436-foot bomb to Gary Sanchez. Unlike the Gardner home run, this one came with a 1.000 expected batting average that no park could hold.
Since the start of 2018, Gary Sánchez has hit 34 HR at 110+ MPH, tied for the most in @MLB in that span (Harper, Gallo).
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) July 21, 2021
Nola now has a 4.64 ERA in 19 starts this season. Since June 1, he has made eight starts, surrendering 48 hits (20 extra-base hits), 10 homers, and 28 earned runs over 41 1/3 innings. During that stretch, he holds a 6.10 ERA while averaging just over five innings per start. He has completed at least six innings only twice.
Exacerbating the frustration on this particular night is that his latest mediocre start came in a situation where his team needed more.
Certainly, Nola is not solely to blame for the loss. Spotty defense, a bullpen that handed out two late insurance runs, and 11 runners left stranded by a lineup that failed numerous times to deliver the key hit each played a part. But his struggles headline the aftermath because any chance of the Phillies making a postseason run is predicated upon its top three starting pitchers leading the way.
For what it’s worth, Nola remains confident that he will turn things around.
“I feel close. I think the execution of my pitches really haven’t been where I want them to be, mainly my fastball,” Nola said after the game. “Both sides of the plate, I’m kind of missing off a little bit and then leaking over the plate. It’s just not been as true as it has. I’m going to keep on working, stay healthy, got a lot of baseball left.”
He’s right. There is a lot of baseball left.
If he remains healthy, he will likely make 14 or 15 more starts this season.
That is more than enough time to author the most important chapters of his 2021 story. But if what the Phillies have gotten from Nola for nearly two months now is what they get from him over the next two-plus months, then let’s be real. They won’t have to worry about the Mets, Braves, Nationals, or COVID vaccination reluctance standing in the way of a postseason appearance.