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MLB playoffs 2023: With Phillies’ bats backing him, Aaron Nola continues rewriting the narrative of his 2023

MLB playoffs 2023: With Phillies’ bats backing him, Aaron Nola continues rewriting the narrative of his 2023

PHILADELPHIA — There were signs that Aaron Nola sensed the sand running through the hourglass, the clock ticking toward zero guaranteed starts remaining in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform.

The longest-tenured player on the defending National League champions, Nola is set to hit free agency for the first time whenever the Phillies’ 2023 campaign comes to an end. The nine-year veteran uncharacteristically tipped his cap to the Citizens Bank Park crowd while departing his final regular-season start Sept. 26 — in what eventually became the Phillies’ clinching victory. One dominant wild-card series performance later, he took the mound in a crucial NLDS Game 3 against the Atlanta Braves and held down that vaunted offense for 5 2/3 innings. Yet again, he tipped his cap. On both occasions, he said he wasn’t thinking about his impending free agency or the idea that his Phillies tenure could be running out but was simply soaking in the scene.

Besides, every tea leaf hinting at the possible end of Nola’s time in Philly has been smothered by the 30-year-old right-hander dumping new heaps of sand into his Phillies timer. The latest came Tuesday, when he befuddled the Arizona Diamondbacks across six scoreless innings in the 10-0 Phillies beatdown that was NLCS Game 2.

Fresh off that victory — which brought him to 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA in these playoffs — Nola got that peek-over-the-ledge hypothetical again, in its most updated form. If the Texas Rangers win the ALCS, which they lead 2-0, and the Phillies close out the D-backs in Arizona, the Phillies would start the World Series on the road, and he might not get another chance to pitch at Citizens Bank Park.

“I just honestly try to soak it in as much as possible and leave it all out there on the field,” Nola said. “I love pitching here, love pitching in front of this crowd, this stadium.”

How Aaron Nola energized a rocky contract year

It actually wasn’t a good season for Nola, even if you’d never know it from his postseason.

Struggling with some mechanical issues, he gave up home runs and hard contact in spurts. His park-adjusted ERA+ was below MLB average for the third time in his career, but unlike in seemingly rocky 2016 and 2021 seasons that largely traced to bad luck and defensive misadventures behind him, underlying metrics actually supported the idea that Nola was a bit off his game in 2023.

Contract years are tricky things — especially contract years that follow a pitcher’s first time working deep into October. Back in May, as Nola was trying to get into the swing of this season, his eyes were on the prize handed out before free-agent dollars.

“The only thing I’m really focused on is trying to win for this team and get wins because I want to get back to where we were last year because to me, that’s the ultimate goal,” he told Yahoo Sports then. “Winning is a lot better than personal success for me.”

Eventually, Nola — like the Phillies the baseball world has come to know and fear over the past two seasons — found his stride in time for the playoffs.

“Obviously, my regular season was up and down and kind of inconsistent, but once the postseason hits, that’s out the window,” he said Tuesday.

Out the window indeed. Nola and Phillies manager Rob Thomson explained that over his final few starts of the regular season, Nola made an adjustment to the direction of his stride toward the plate that helped him rediscover his usual form, the long-proven form that will make him one of the offseason’s most sought-after free agents — if anyone can pry him away from Philadelphia.

That confidence manifested in a masterful Game 2 performance against Arizona. He mixed his pitches — 34% four-seam fastball, 28% curveball, 23% changeup, plus some sinkers and cutters — to dizzying effect. On the few occasions when it seemed a Diamondbacks hitter might be close to solving him, Nola demonstrated his command by whipping out a new pitch to freeze him.

In the fourth, just after Ketel Marte had logged Arizona’s first hit, Nola stunned Christian Walker with a perfect tailing sinker up and away. In the fifth inning, one batter after Evan Longoria smacked a ball to the wall that was barely caught by Nick Castellanos, Geraldo Perdomo worked a 3-2 count. Having thrown Perdomo three four-seamers, two changeups and a sinker, Nola busted out the curve, and the young Arizona shortstop had no chance.

Catcher J.T. Realmuto, who drove in three of the Phillies’ 10 runs in Game 2, said Nola has been using his whole arsenal to stay ahead of hitters.

“He’s done a good job of mixing his pitches, you know, using both fastballs to righties and lefties, using both sides of the plate,” Realmuto said. “He’s really just being unpredictable and getting ahead of guys and being able to put them away when he is ahead.”

D-backs manager Torey Lovullo declined to describe his team’s game plan against Nola — in case they rally and see him again this series — but even he couldn’t deny the obvious.

“He just looked like he was one step ahead of us today,” Lovullo said of Nola.

What’s in store for Nola in free agency?

After the Game 2 triumph, Nola was humble, saying that his goal each time out is to follow Zack Wheeler, to match his co-ace’s tone and keep the Phillies in the game.

With each dominant outing on the big stage, though, Nola is reframing his season and the winter that will follow it. He was already going to be in demand. Since 2018, no one has made more regular-season starts than Nola’s 175. Only Gerrit Cole has thrown more innings than Nola’s 1,065 1/3. Only 12 pitchers (with at least 750 innings in that span) have bested his park-adjusted ERA-, and only six can claim better park-adjusted FIP- numbers, an underlying metric other clubs might use to strip out some of the effects of defense and luck.

Big playoff performances have swayed fortunes before. You don’t have to go back very far to find Dave Dombrowski, the Phillies’ current president of baseball operations, inking 2018 postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi to a four-year deal when he was running the Boston Red Sox.

Nola has even stronger ties to this organization. The Louisiana native was the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2014, he arrived in the majors as the Phillies hit rock-bottom in an attempted rebuild, he signed an extension, and he remained a frontline starter as they danced through the 2022 postseason in their distinct way. So while he has blocked out any distractions that his uncommitted future might bring, he has not shied away from saying how he feels about the only baseball home he has ever known.

Prior to NLCS Game 1, Nola said his hope is to remain in Philadelphia beyond this season.

“I love it here,” he said. “Obviously, it’s the only place I’ve been. I came up through some special times in the rebuilding era, and getting to witness and be a part of a lot of different types of teams. To be on a team like I am now, it’s really cool and special to see and to be a part of all the success and failures to get to where we are now.”

Where they are now is right where he hoped they would be — steamrolling toward another NL pennant, toward another shot at the World Series, toward another start in front of the Philadelphia crowd.

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