Concerns over Nola grow, Phillies overcome shaky defense to beat Cardinals originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
ST. LOUIS — It was far from their prettiest game of the season and it only raised more questions about Aaron Nola, but the Phillies began their final multi-city road trip of 2023 on a positive note, responding to a 2-5 homestand by holding on to beat the Cardinals Friday night at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis had the bases loaded with the winning run in scoring position with two outs in the ninth inning against Jose Alvarado but Lars Nootbaar struck out looking to end a 5-4 Phillies win.
Much earlier in the night, the Phils jumped on St. Louis lefty Zack Thompson with four runs in the first inning. Trea Turner began the rally — surprise, surprise — with a single to center. He scored on a fielder’s choice from Bryce Harper, and two batters later, Nick Castellanos deposited a first-pitch cutter over the heart of the plate into the Phillies’ bullpen for a three-run homer.
Castellanos is up to 24 home runs — 11 more than last year — and 93 RBI on the season. His career-high is 101.
The Phillies had lost nine of their last 10 one-run games. They improved to 80-67 with 15 games left. They’ll head into Saturday with a 2½-game lead on the Cubs — three up in the loss column plus the tiebreaker — for the top National League wild-card spot.
“I didn’t think we played our best baseball, obviously, but we grinded it out,” manager Rob Thomson said. “Too many walks from our pitchers, especially our bullpen, but we got the win.”
Harper was ejected by home plate umpire Alex Tosi after ending the top of the third inning with a swinging strikeout. The penultimate pitch he saw was a fastball high and out of the zone that was called a strike. He flung his bat toward the Phillies’ dugout in frustration and appeared to get his money’s worth after being tossed.
“It’s probably not the first time you’re going to see Bryce get thrown out,” Thomson quipped. “I don’t think you have to say anything to Harp. He understands. He’s very emotional, he’s a huge competitor, but at the end of the night, he understands the game and he understands how important he is.”
You never want to lose your best hitter and cleanup man so early, and the Cardinals quickly cut the Phils’ lead in half the next half-inning with three consecutive one-out singles off Nola. St. Louis had the tying run on base when Bryson Stott and Turner executed a nifty 4-6-3 double play with Stott fielding a ball up the middle and flipping to Turner with his momentum going away from the play. It was a pivotal point in the game for Nola, who has been doomed time and again this season by one problematic inning.
Aside from that GIDP, the Phillies’ defense was poor with six misplays in the first six innings. Turner made an errant throw to begin the bottom of the first and was unable to catch a line drive right at him in the sixth. Edmundo Sosa’s throw to second base on a fielder’s choice attempt was late in the third inning, then in the fourth, he double-clutched a ball that resulted in Jordan Walker reaching base. Nola made a wide throw to first on a swinging bunt by Tommy Edman and Cristian Pache missed a cutoff man on the next play, allowing Edman to advance.
Thomson pulled Nola after 4⅔ innings. The right-hander was at 97 pitches with two men aboard and two outs. It was Nola’s third straight start under five innings. The only other time in his MLB career he’s had three straight sub-five-inning starts was in June 2016, shortly before he was shut down for the season with an elbow injury.
“I still trust that he’s going to get there. I still think of Aaron Nola as a big-game pitcher,” Thomson said. “His last start against Houston last year might have been his best start all year. I’m hoping that comes back.”
Matt Strahm made Thomson’s decision stand up by striking out Richie Palacios to end the fifth-inning threat. The Phillies used five different relievers — Strahm, Seranthony Dominguez, Craig Kimbrel and Jose Alvarado — to preserve the lead. Kimbrel walked the bases loaded in the eighth but struck out Alec Burleson to end the inning.
Nola struck out just one of the 23 batters he faced, a career low. Only five of his 97 pitches resulted in a swinging strike. In 30 starts, Nola is 12-9 with a 4.62 ERA. He figures to take the mound two or three more times in the regular season. As it stands, he’d be in line to start Game 162, but the Phillies could also save him if they’ve clinched the top wild-card spot by then.
“His track record, he’s done it before,” Castellanos said. “We believe in him. He’s our teammate and every time that he goes out on the bump, we believe he’s going to give us a chance to win. And even though he didn’t have his quote unquote best stuff today, we won today’s game. He kept us in the game.”
The Phillies look to win the series Saturday night when Ranger Suarez opposes contact-based right-hander Miles Mikolas. The Phillies got to Mikolas for five runs in six innings at home on August 25. Suarez struck out a career-high 10 Marlins on Sunday.