Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

Whatever a “gamer” is, Aaron Nola is one of them

Aaron Nola (right) stands with fellow National League All-Star Ross Stripling and National League All-Star pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. (Brian Michael/PhilliesNation)

The term “gamer” is one of those things in sports that doesn’t really have a definition, you just know one when you see one. Roy Halladay was a gamer. Cliff Lee was a gamer. Tim Lincecum was a gamer. CC Sabathia was – and to a degree still is – a gamer. And in 2018, Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola has established himself as a gamer.

Nola was selected to his first National League All-Star team in 2018 after going 12-3 with a 2.30 ERA, a 2.60 FIP and a 4.2 fWAR in the first half of the season. Those aren’t the numbers of someone simply worthy of All-Star consideration, those are the numbers of someone that’s a no-doubt-about-it All-Star. But what Nola has done since being named an All-Star – and even slightly prior to it – has earned him the “gamer” label.

In the All-Star Game itself, Nola figured to pitch in the third inning. Given that the game was at Nationals Park and that Max Scherzer had won consecutive National League Cy Young Awards, he was a no-brainer to start the game. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who was managing the National League team, even let Scherzer go two innings. That was fine, as was New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom pitching the third inning.

However, it was a minor surprise when Atlanta Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz, not Nola, was the third pitcher the National League used. Foltynewicz had an impressive first-half for the upstart Braves, but him getting the chance to pitch before Nola added fuel to the local narrative that Nola’s dominance was being overlooked nationally.

When Roberts finally turned to Nola in the top of the fifth, he made sure to leave a lasting impression on a national audience.

The 2014 first-round pick started his lone inning of work by striking out Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez. He then began a stretch that saw him square off with arguably the three best offensive players in the American League: Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve and Mike Trout. Despite possessing one of the best curveballs in the game, Nola struck Betts, a favorite for the American League MVP, out with a 96 MPH fastball. After allowing Altuve to single, he got Trout, playing in his seventh All-Star Game, to hit a weak infield pop-up that ended the inning:

It’s fair enough to say that despite the stage, Nola did that just during an exhibition. However, Altuve is one of this era’s best players, Betts is on a Hall of Fame trajectory and Trout may be the best position player not named Bonds in the last 50 years. Not only did Nola’s demeanor not change facing that trio, but he seemed to reach back and find something extra. That’s become a trend for the former LSU Tiger.

A month-and-a-half prior to appearing in his first All-Star Game, Nola got the ball at Chavez Ravine in what was supposed to be the return of three-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. Instead, the Dodgers only allowed Kershaw to pitch five innings and Nola stole the show, allowing just two hits and striking out seven batters in seven one-run innings:

Nearly two months later, the Phillies shipped up to Boston, with Nola getting the ball at Fenway Park against five-time All-Star David Price. All Nola did in Boston was turn in what may be the most dominant start of his career, allowing just four hits and one run in eight innings. The Phillies ultimately lost that game in 13 innings, though the main takeaway was how Nola found something extra against one of the greatest Red Sox teams in the club’s illustrious history:

Twice in the past two months, Nola has squared off against the division rival New York Mets.

Given the Mets 56-71 record, even though they play in Queens, they don’t exactly qualify as pitching on a big stage currently. Still, in the second game of a double-header, Nola turned Citi Field into a national stage again. Not only did the 25-year-old allow just one hit in seven scoreless innings, but he plated the Phillies only three runs of the game on an RBI double:

Then, last week, Nola squared off against former All-Star Noah Syndergaard. With a deGrom start looming on Saturday, Nola allowed just three hits and one run in a Friday night win over the Mets:

But perhaps the most impressive start of Nola’s young career – given both the stage and the importance to the Phillies playoff hopes – came Thursday afternoon against the Washington Nationals. Following a rather devastating walk-off loss to the Nationals Wednesday evening, manager Gabe Kapler handed Nola the ball looking to avoid a sweep. Forget that Nola was taking the mound against a Nationals lineup the featured a red-hot Bryce Harper, but he was expected to help the Phillies avoid a sweep while pitching against Scherzer.

And Nola helped the Phillies avoid a sweep, all while outdueling a potential future Hall of Famer.

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 fourth and seventh innings.

In the eighth inning, Nola did run into a bit of trouble, as both Adam Eaton and Trea Turner reached base with two outs. However, after walking Turner, Nola turned in another “gamer” moment against the aforementioned Harper. Nola did allow Harper to get up 2-1 in the count, only to blow him away with two consecutive 95 MPH fastballs away.

While Scherzer went blow-for-blow with Nola through the first six innings, Odubel Herrera hit a two-run home run off of Scherzer in the top of the seventh inning, which proved to be all that Nola needed. Nola turned the ball over to Pat Neshek in the ninth having struck out nine across eight scoreless innings that saw him lower his ERA to 2.13:

There are a ton of statistics that speak to the type of season that Nola is having, but perhaps this is the best one: in four starts against Kershaw, Price, Syndergaard and Scherzer, Nola has an 0.90 ERA in 30 innings pitched. Those four pitchers have combined for 19 All-Star appearances and seven Cy Young Awards. Kershaw is a lock to be a Hall of Famer and Scherzer has put himself into that discussion. Nola has been dominant when squaring off will all four pitchers.

Whether the Phillies make the playoffs or not, Nola has established himself as someone that elevates his game on the biggest stages. His gamer mentality figures to bode well whenever the Phillies next reach the postseason.

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