Aaron Nola could cement ace status by closing out the Cardinals in his playoff debut

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For the first time in forever, the Phillies are on the verge of clinching a playoff series. Late-inning heroics fueled the Phillies’ thrilling Game 1 victory over the NL Central champion Cardinals yesterday. Now, the Phillies are just one win away from their first NLDS appearance in over a decade. One win, one step closer to the ultimate championship goal. It’s fitting that with so much on the line, the Phillies are starting Aaron Nola, one of the longest-tenured Phillies on the roster.

Aaron Nola reaches the postseason for the first time

“It’s sweet, man. It’s sweet,” Nola said in a celebratory clubhouse after clinching a playoff berth Monday night. “I came up with these guys and been through some hard years. A lot of lost years, and every year we’re getting better. Just to make it to the wild card, it’s huge.”

Nola, who logged 200+ innings for the third time in his career this season, was drafted seventh overall by the Phillies back in 2014.

Since becoming a full-time starter in 2013, Nola has become somewhat of a polarizing figure. His dominant 2018 season led many to crown him as an MLB ace. That year, Nola posted a 17-6 record and held opponents to a .197 batting average across 212 1/3 innings pitched. He became the first Phillie in the modern era to hold opponents below a .200 batting average and pitch 200 or more innings.

Needless to say, he certainly looked the part of a true staff ace.

A bumpy road

Nola experienced a bit of turbulence over the next few seasons, though. He routinely struggled to keep his pitch count moderate and go deep into ball games. More importantly, he began allowing more hard contact and consequently, more runs.

After posting an impressive 2.37 ERA in 2018, Nola saw his ERA swell to 3.87 the following year. Again, not terrible numbers, but certainly not what one would want from the head of the rotation.

Aaron Nola showed signs of improvement in 2020, finishing with a 3.28 ERA before regressing severely in 2021. By far the worst season of his career, Nola struggled with his command and was getting rocked on the regular. His 4.63 ERA in 2021 provides a glimpse of just how brutal a year it was for the former first-rounder.

His struggles caused many to begin invalidating the ace label they graced him with previously. Frankly, I think Nola is closer to an ace than not.

He is the only pitcher in the majors to pitch a shutout in each of the last three seasons and is tied for the third-most shutouts since 2015. He’s also been incredibly reliable in Philly, rarely missing a start.

Since 2015, no pitcher in the majors has logged more innings than Aaron Nola.

He’s not perfect, but the Phillies ought to be thrilled to have him.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – JULY 24: Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) delivers a pitch during the fifth inning of the game between the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies on July 24, 2020 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire)

His biggest game yet

Aaron Nola has done a great job of moonlighting as an ace over the years, but in the MLB postseason, he will finally be granted the stage to prove himself.

Drafted in the early stages of the Phillies’ eventual 11-year playoff drought, Aaron Nola has yet to start a playoff game. In Game 2 against the Cardinals, that all changes, and Nola will take the mound in a postseason atmosphere for the first time.

This season, he’s made 18 starts against teams that were 10 or more games over .500 and faired okay. He recorded a 3.48 ERA in such starts. Against a top-heavy Cardinals lineup, Nola has a chance to flash brilliance on a national stage. In nine career appearances against the Cards, Nola is 5-3 with a 2.69 ERA and 66 strikeouts.

His tenth start against Saint Louis will be the most important yet, so hopefully the playoff pressure doesn’t get the best of him.

“I’ve been on the Phillies since 2015, been on some losing teams, of course,” Nola said. “And it’s obviously not fun. Way more fun being on this side of it, getting into the postseason.”

Luckily for Aaron Nola, his first playoff start couldn’t come at a better time. Nola finished an impressive 2022 campaign on a high.

In his final start of the regular season, Nola punched the Phillies’ ticket to the postseason with a strong outing against the Astros. Against a very stout Astros squad, Nola was perfect through the first 6 2/3 innings.

He didn’t allow his first hit, a single, until the end of the sixth inning, at which point he was pulled out. His strong outing was instrumental in the Phillies clinching the first Wild Card berth in franchise history and capped a phenomenal season for Nola.

This season, Aaron Nola had the highest fWAR (6.3) among all pitchers. He finished the year with 235 strikeouts and just 29 walks, the most strikeouts in a season with less than 30 walks in MLB history. Nola joined Cy Young (1904), Kevin Gausman (2022), and former Phillies ace Cliff Lee (2012) as the only pitchers to record 200+ strikeouts and less than 30 walks in the same season.

Furthermore, Aaron Nola was able to keep his usual September struggles at bay and closed the season on a high. In years past, Nola has somewhat faltered as the year went on, usually coinciding with the Phillies’ late-season collapse.

Across six September/October starts this year, though, he posted an impressive 2.36 ERA across 34 1/3 innings pitched. This was the lowest ERA total for him of any month all year and should give him some additional confidence heading into the playoffs.

“And all that (crap) about Aaron Nola in September,” Rhys Hoskins said after the team’s Wild Card clinching win over the Astros. “I think that can go away now.”

Whether he is a true ace or not, Aaron Nola gives the Phillies a great chance to win each time he takes the mound, a trend the Phillies hope will continue as they look to eliminate the Cardinals next game.

Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire