MILWAUKEE — Aaron Nola has been an every-fifth-game constant for the Phillies since early in 2017, which explains how he whiffed the first batter he faced Saturday and took over fifth place on the franchise’s all-time strikeout list.
Move over, Curt Schilling. Next up, 26 Ks away: Chris Short.
But Nola also was making the first start of the final September of his contract with the Phillies. And even though he’s only 30 and got Cy Young votes in three of the last five seasons, it’s hardly a guarantee that they will re-sign him. Or that they should.
Such is Nola’s complicated, albeit incomplete, Phillies legacy.
That’s for another day. For now, here are the relevant details: After back-to-back solid starts that seemed to portend a strong finish to his disappointing walk year, Nola gave up seven runs on eight hits and three walks in a 7-5 loss to the Brewers (76-59). He didn’t survive the fifth inning.
Squint and you might see how it could’ve gone differently. Maybe a more agile left fielder than Kyle Schwarber would have caught Brice Turang’s one-out fly ball in the second inning. Instead, it fell between Schwarber and Brandon Marsh for an RBI single in what kickstarted a three-run Brewers rally.
But Nola also wasn’t sharp. Not like he was last Sunday at home against the Cardinals. Certainly not like the Phillies (74-61) need him to be in Game 2 of a wild-card series next month.
Speaking of which, the Phillies’ lead for the top wild card — and the best-of-three series at home that accompanies it — remains four games over the Cubs. But they have lost three in a row, and a few cracks are beginning to form.
For one thing, although the Phillies continue to flex their homer muscles (Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto, and Trea Turner went deep, with Turner tying a franchise record with a homer in five straight games), the offense often looks one-dimensional. Seven of 10 runs in the last two games against the Brewers — and nearly 42% of the 660 runs overall — came via homers.
And for another, the bullpen looks vulnerable, with José Alvarado and Seranthony Domínguez struggling to find their mojo after stints on the injured list, and Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto fighting the effects of a heavy workload.
But none of it will matter much if Nola doesn’t pitch better down the stretch and in October.
In much of his previous two starts, Nola kept the ball down in the strike zone. He gave up two solo homers in seven innings Aug. 21 against the Giants, then allowed one hit in seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals.
Nola didn’t have his best command against the Brewers. Two batters after Turang’s fly ball fell, he gave up a scorched two-out RBI double on a curveball to Tyrone Taylor and an RBI single to Christian Yelich.
But the backbreaker came in the fifth. William Contreras hit a first-pitch change-up for a double before Nola hung a curveball to Carlos Santana for a two-run homer. He issued a two-out walk to Willy Adames and gave up a hard-hit double to Mark Canha, the knockout blow in his shortest start since July 29 in Pittsburgh.
It all left Nola’s ERA at 4.55 in 28 starts. He likely will have four more starts in the regular season. Another rung on the strikeout ladder is in his sights.
But the real legacy-maker, the one that matters most and might determine his future with the Phillies, will happen only if he can pitch the team to another long postseason run.
Turner makes history
Unlike Friday night, when Turner blasted a go-ahead three-run homer against Brewers closer Devin Williams, he struck out to end the game with the tying run on second base.
But with a sixth-inning solo homer, Turner tied a club record by becoming the eighth Phillies player to go deep in five consecutive games. The mark is shared by Odúbel Herrera (2018), Rhys Hoskins (2017), Chase Utley (2008, twice), Bobby Abreu (2005), Mike Schmidt (1979), and Dick Allen (1969).
Schwarber led off with a homer for the second game in a row and the ninth time overall this season. He has 16 leadoff homers for the Phillies over the last two years.
With his next homer, Schwarber will become the fifth player in franchise history with back-to-back 40-homer seasons. The others: Ryan Howard (2006-09), Jim Thome (2003-04), Schmidt (1979-80), and Chuck Klein (1929-30).