In 2018, Philadelphia Phillies RHP Aaron Nola turned in one of the most dominant seasons in club history. The former first-round pick went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA, a 3.01 FIP, 5.6 bWAR and a 10.0 bWAR. This is the first installment of a series looking back on the five best start’s that the 25-year-old turned in during an All-Star season.
Clayton Kershaw is the rare player whose career could conclude at age 30, and he would still be a safe bet to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw is a three-time National League Cy Young Award winner whose 64.6 bWAR is already higher than the career marks of Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and John Smoltz. Not only does his 2.39 career ERA trounce any active starting pitchers, but it’s the lowest career ERA by a starting pitcher in the live ball era. Kershaw’s postseason struggles have been well-documented, but despite those, he has a chance to finish his career as one of the 10 most accomplished starting pitchers in baseball history.
A year after the Dodgers finished within a game of winning the Wold Series, Kershaw spent nearly the entire month of May on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis. On May 31, he returned to the mound as the Dodgers hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at Chavez Ravine. The game was supposed to mark the return of the league’s best pitcher (when healthy), one the team hoped could spark a surge after a surprisingly below-average 26-29 start.
Instead, the game offered perhaps the first glimpse that Phillies righty Aaron Nola not only planned to establish himself as one of the sport’s best young starters in 2018, but one of the sport’s best starter’s period.
The evening didn’t go as planned for Kershaw, who lasted just five innings. Though Kershaw had a manageable pitch count and had limited the Phillies to four hits and one earned run, he left the game with a no-decision. It was the final time he would pitch at the major league level until June 23, as he was forced to return to the disabled list after the start.
For Nola, it’s hard to imagine the game having gone any better than it did. The only two hits that the 25-year-old allowed in seven frames came in the fifth inning, when Kike Hernandez – he of Chase Utley’s son fame – singled in Yasiel Puig, who had doubled earlier in the inning. In six other innings, Nola didn’t allow a single hit, while striking out seven and walking just one. After being controversially pulled by manager Gabe Kapler with just 68 pitches on Opening Day, Nola topped the 110 pitch mark against the Dodgers for the second consecutive start. Nola lowered his ERA to 2.18 in a game that the Phillies would win 2-1, thanks to two RBIs from catcher Jorge Alfaro and two superb innings from rookie Seranthony Dominguez in relief of Nola.
Nola ultimately improved to 7-2 on the season in the defeat of the Dodgers. Though he had already put himself firmly in the discussion for his first All-Star Game nod, this was Nola’s first dominant start while squaring off with one of the league’s best arms. It wasn’t the last time that he would dominate on a major stage. Counting this start, Nola posted a 0.97 ERA in 37 innings spanning five starts where he was matched up with Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard and David Price.
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