Aaron Nola is a marked man. With winter and upcoming free agency fast approaching, Nola knows that every start he makes in a Phillies uniform could be his last. So far this October, he’s made damned sure that they count for something.
After a tumultuous regular season, filled with many more downs than ups, Nola has elevated into the best version of himself. “September Nola”, the long-tired nickname the righthander picked up after numerous late season collapses–and with him, oftentimes the Phillies’ postseason hopes as well–has been replaced by “October Nola”. October Nola is decisive and dominant. He doesn’t shy away from the strike zone, but he doesn’t use it as a crutch either–in his first start of the postseason, in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Marlins, Nola threw seven scoreless innings, allowing three hits while striking out just three batters. “September Nola” would likely have gone five innings, allowing at least three runs while striking out upwards of eight batters in an inefficient mishap of a start.
Since then, the strikeouts have returned but the old habits have not. In Game 3 of the NLDS against Atlanta, Nola struck out 9 across 5.2 innings of work. The Phillies won 10-2. In Game 2 of the NLCS, Nola struck out seven over six scoreless innings. The Phillies won 10-0. Sensing a pattern? In three postseason starts this year, Nola is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 19-to-2. He has been even better than his running mate Zach Wheeler, the undisputed ace of the staff, who along with Ranger Suarez, make up what might just be the scariest three-headed monster postseason offenses have ever seen.
Nola has been nothing short of magnificent this postseason. Tonight, with a 3-2 lead in the series and a chance to take home the National League crown, the Phillies need him more than ever. The beginning of the series had felt like a dream. Two dominant victories at home, punctuated by a 10-run outburst in Game 2 made it feel like the pennant was all but secured. The Phillies had hit the Diamondbacks’ best pitchers, stifled their speedy lineup, and ran them off the field like a rattlesnake in a cattle pen.
Then, after a scene change to the desert, everything suddenly collapsed. The Phillies flat out couldn’t hit in Game 3 and with a late surge the D-Backs stole one out from underneath them, 2-1. Panic began to set in late in Game 4, when the bullpen blew a three run lead and allowed Arizona to tie the series at two games apiece. The Phillies were watching their season disappear before their eyes. All of their worst traits, thought to have been put to rest by three weeks of sustained excellence, sprung awake: they couldn’t hit with runners in scoring position, they played sloppy defense, and the bullpen couldn’t hold a lead if their lives depended on it.
The outlook was grim. The magic seemed to have gone out of the air, replaced by the cold, artificial A/C of Arizona’s hostile monolith Chase Field. However, the Phillies had their ace up their sleeve, literally, and Zach Wheeler outdueled Zac Gallen once again to put the Phillies on top and in the position to advance to the World Series for the second year in a row on Monday night.
For Nola, the stage could not be set more perfectly. The organization’s longest-tenured player, he is by far the franchise’s most successful draft pick in the last decade. Next year could very well mean a new team and a new city for the thirty-year-old right-hander. His last eight have been spent pitching in the confines of this very park. No matter what the outcome of tonight’s game, Nola will never be forgotten. But with a trip to the World Series on the line, a win tonight will ensure that his name will live on forever. Tonight, on the one-year anniversary of Bedlam at the Bank, Nola has the chance to do what many only dream of: cement his legacy as one of the greatest pitchers to ever don the red pinstripes.