The start of the 2023 season has brought more questions and more scrutiny than usual for Aaron Nola.

Often overly-criticized for his performance over the past few seasons by fans and media alike, even during the good times in October, Nola has faced a different kind of criticism this season.

It could be that the notion of pitching on the final year of his contract is weighing heavier on him to perform better, or he’s not nearly as effective under the new rules since he’s a pitcher who likes to slow the game down to gain an advantage, or that his arm may be finally responding negatively to his workhorse workload, thus leading to a reduction in velocity, which is hurting his production. Take all these things and couple that with his propensity to have bad innings from time to time, and he’s just a mediocre pitcher.

Nola has always been held to a higher standard than any other Phillies pitcher during his tenure, meaning his starts are always more about instant reactions to the negative moments and withholding judgments or prognostications of impending failure during the positive moments.

It’s the nature of the beast for homegrown players in Philadelphia. Nola isn’t alone. Rhys Hoskins has had a similar experience in his time. Until Tuesday night, Joel Embiid often faced excessive criticism for the Sixers’ shortcomings, Claude Giroux is going to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame one day and he was crucified mercilessly for the failings of the Flyers.

And to be fair, some of those questions/criticisms worth exploring or even could be accurate, but none of them are confirmed as fact. They are simply hypotheses that spin out of control on Reddit boards and Twitter.

Even still, Nola’s first month-plus of the 2023 season hasn’t been vintage. In fact, the struggles have been real and evident. Even his last start, a game that the Phillies jumped out to a 5-0 lead against the Dodgers only to lose 10-6 on a walk-off grand slam by Max Muncy, while Nola didn’t lose the game, or even give up the lead, he did allow the Dodgers to get back into it, something that shouldn’t happen.

Even though there was a crucial playoff basketball game on the tube Tuesday, all eyes at a sold out Citizens Bank Park, and those discerning fans who were flipping back and forth with the remote, wanted to check in on Nola, as he faced a superb Toronto Blue Jays lineup.

While the start wasn’t perfect and Nola had to pitch out of trouble a couple times, he got the job done in what would be an 8-4 Phillies win.

Nola went six innings and allowed just two runs on five hits and a pair of walks while striking out six, which, although is a low total traditionally for Nola, matches a season high.

He was tested in the third inning after giving up a leadoff double to Kevin Kiermeier, and having him sacrificed over to third, Nola allowed another double to Bo Bichette. The ball was seemingly misplayed by Brandon Marsh in center, and likely should have been a sacrifice fly, but it was enough to give Toronto an early lead and put pressure on Nola not to let it grow into a bigger one.

Nola was able to get the dangerous Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. to ground out and struck out Daulton Varsho to end the threat.

In the sixth, Bichette led off with a home run, Nola walked Guerrero and gave up an infield single to Varsho. He was clinging to a one-run lead and had two runners on with no outs. But he bore down and got MLB doubles leader Matt Chapman to bounce out, struck out Brandon Belt looking, and induced a ground out from Alejandro Kirk.

That ended his game, on just 86 pitches, but he emptied the tank to keep the lead.

Nola’s velocity, a cause for concern to start the season, was up. He was touching 95 on his sinker. Both the sinker and the four-seamer were up a full MPH from where he had been living all season.

And he seemed to be concentrating more on his traditional pitches (four-seam, sinker, curveball, change) and less on his cutter, which had seen an uptick in usage.

He’s still not completely back to being himself, but his ERA (although high for him  at 4.44) is better than league average, and his recent starts are beginning to level out to be more in line with what you would expect from Nola at the top of the rotation:

That’s a 3.24 ERA over the last five starts, facing three really good lineups. Not bad.

“As long as I keep the little goals going well, which is getting the leadoff guy out and getting ahead of hitters, keep the walks down, keep the home runs down, I think better things will happen,” Nola said.

Speaking of better things:

Nick Castellanos continues to rake. He had three hits in the win, including that home run. He’s now slashing .317/.367/.525 for an .892 OPS. His 14 doubles are tied for the NL lead. His OPS+ is 144, meaning he’s 44% better than the average MLB hitter when adjusting for ballparks.

Castellanos is comfortable. He’s having fun. And he loves playing in front of his son Liam, who took part in outfield drills and with his dad before the game:

He’s been the most constant and consistent hitter for the Phillies this year, with apologies to Brandon Marsh, who still seems to be out of the lineup against tough lefties.

On the whole, the Phillies were better at grinding out at bats Tuesday than they’ve been all year. They drew seven walks and really worked Alek Manoah and after he was lifted, the Blue Jays bullpen.

After a week of frustration and misery, the last two games seems to have brought the fun and mischievous spirit back to the Phillies.

Other things of note from the ballpark:

  • Kyle Schwarber fouled a ball off his left foot in the sixth inning and left the game. He had X-rays and they were negative, so it’s being considered a contusion, or bruise. With the Phillies having another off day Thursday, it would have been easy for Thomson to give Schwarber an extra day of rest. Instead, he’s in the lineup Thursday.
  • Jose Alvarado was not available to pitch Tuesday because he had a sore left wrist. It doesn’t seem too concerning and he thought he will be able to pitch Wednesday. Instead, he went on the 15-day IL with left elbow inflammation. That could be a big blow to the bullpen.
  • Ranger Suarez will pitch this weekend in Colorado. Thomson said he will announce the rotation for that series on Wednesday, but my guess is Bailey Falter is getting pushed back. The Phillies will likely throw Taijuan Walker Friday, Suarez Saturday, and Nola Sunday. That would put Falter – or a potential replacement like Nick Nelson or Christopher Sanchez – in the middle of the San Francisco series early next week.
  • Andrew Bellatti (triceps tendonitis) was originally scheduled to throw another inning Wednesday in Lehigh Valley as part of his rehab assignment. and the be activated for the Colorado series. However, with the Alvarado news, Bellatti was activated early and rejoined the team Wednesday.
  • There was an Andrew Painter sighting at CBP. He’s still on his throwing program, throwing from 120 feet. Thomson said he could move on to flat ground-pitching next week. The Phillies wanted to see him in person and have their docs check in. He’ll return to Florida after Wednesday to keep working.
  • Thomson said Bryce Harper, who can still only DH in games, has upped his throwing program to throwing from 75 feet. He’s still taking regular practice at first base as well. The Phillies want to get him on the field during games so they can have more flexibility with the lineup and get more players off their feet but stay in the lineup as a DH.