In Roy Halladay’s first two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, there was a feeling that if the Phillies scored one or twos runs with Halladay pitching, he would take care of the rest. More than half a decade later, every Aaron Nola start is starting to get that feel as well. His 2018 season is also starting to feel like one that’s going to garner serious consideration for the National League Cy Young Award and perhaps even the National League MVP.
What’s that saying about you have to beat the best to be the best? With all due respect to Jacob deGrom’s very serious case for both awards, Nola squared off with Max Scherzer, a serious contender to win both the National League Cy Young Award and MVP. Not only has Scherzer been one of the finest players in the game in 2018, but he’s been one of the era’s best pitchers. Scherzer, 34, is a six-time All-Star, who has won back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards. When you add in the American League Cy Young award that Scherzer won in 2013 while pitching for the Detroit Tigers, he’s putting together a very strong Hall of Fame case.
And Scherzer didn’t hurt his Hall of Fame case Thursday. One of the game’s last true workhorses, Scherzer threw 109 pitches in seven innings, striking out 10 and allowing just two hits. Unfortunately for Scherzer, one of those two hits was a two-run home run by Odubel Herrera. Also unfortunately for Scherzer, Nola, who made his first All-Star appearance at Nationals Park earlier this summer, was prepared to beat the best.
Through the first seven innings of his start Thursday, the 25-year-old righty was the perfect mix of dominant and economical. Nola used just 81 pitches through seven innings, including allowing just two hits between the fouth and seventh innings. He also mixed in some wiffle-ball type filth:
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) August 23, 2018
The only thing that stood in the way of Nola throwing his first complete game of the 2018 season was a high-leverage eighth inning that saw him allow two runners to reach base. But just as it appeared that Nola was running out of gas, he reached back and found a 95 MPH fastball to strike out six-time All-Star Bryce Harper:
I'm all out of words for Aaron Nola. Kapler is going to need a new descriptor, because "big stones" doesn't come close to doing this justice. pic.twitter.com/kMxeCnosJd
— Ben Harris (@byBenHarris) August 23, 2018
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, probably correctly, elected to hand the ball to Pat Neshek in the ninth inning. Neshek recorded a one-two-three ninth inning, preserving a Phillies win and Nola’s 15th win of the 2018 season.
In total, Nola went eight shutout innings, allowing just five hits and striking out nine. Though there was some that thought that he should come out for the ninth-inning, a high-leverage eighth inning that saw him throw over 20 pitches prevented that. Nola did top the 100-pitch mark in the eighth inning, with some suggesting that’s why he didn’t return for the ninth. However, he’s thrown more than the 102 pitches he tossed Thursday 11 times in 2018, including in his previous start against the New York Mets. Nola didn’t come back in the ninth because of how much energy he had to expend in the eighth, not because a sabermetrically-inclined coaching staff had their brains collectively short-circuit when his pitch-count topped 100.
In any event, Nola entered the day with a 2.24 ERA, 13 points higher than the 2.11 ERA Scherzer entered the day with. After this afternoon’s contest, both now have 2.13 ERAs. Nola improved to 15-3, beating another Cy Young Award and MVP contender in the process. Are head-to-head matchups overrated when voters decide who should win an award? Probably, but national voters can only watch so many games, and it is easy for them to break a tie by looking at a head-to-head matchup. And this one definitively went in the favor of Nola.
Nola and Scherzer are scheduled to square off again next week at Citizens Bank Park. It’s possible the reverse outcome could take place. But Thursday, Nola outpitched a potential future Hall of Famer. And you better believe that voters were watching.
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