By Mary Cunningham
The Phillies’ Aaron Nola outpitched Max Scherzer yesterday in DC and looked a lot like a Cy Young Award winner for 2018.
Nola is now 15-3 with a 2.14 ERA and Scherzer is 16-6 with a 2.13 ERA.
You can’t do much better than that, and Nola made one more better pitch than Scherzer, who finally blinked in the seventh inning of a scoreless duel.
An inning later, with a red-hot Bryce Harper representing the tying run at the plate, Nola blew away Harper with a pair of fastballs, preserving his shutout and a taxed Phillies bullpen.
With one inning of help from Pat Neshek, Nola halted the Phillies’ four-game losing streak, with a 2-0 victory that kept them three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.
“Right when we needed him most,” said Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, “right when we needed him to step up, he really put the team on his shoulders and carried us. He just dominated.”
It wasn’t just the eight scoreless innings, the nine strikeouts against just one walk and the pitch efficiency enabling him to outlast Scherzer that made this day special.
It also was the context: The Phillies showed up at the ballpark just hours after a two-out, walk-off home run from Ryan Zimmerman dealt them a fourth straight loss and pushed them further from the Braves.
Scherzer, who entered the game 16-5 and hadn’t lost since July 7, was the last guy they wanted to see.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Nola said. “We all know what he’s done, and what he’s capable of.”
For the Phillies, knowing Nola was going out there, too, created opportunity amid gloom.
And for six innings, it was as advertised: Scherzer did not give up a hit until the fifth; Nola bedeviled the Nationals with his elite curveball, finishing off five strikeouts with the pitch.
Scherzer finally blinked in the seventh, issuing a full-count walk to Maikel Franco before Odubel Herrera clubbed a two-run homer. Nola’s moment of truth came in the eighth, when he gave up a two-out double to Adam Eaton and walked Trea Turner.
Up stepped Harper, the 2015 MVP who was batting .364 since the All-Star break. When Nola spun a pair of suboptimal curveballs and fell behind 2-1, it was time to adjust.
“Nola, being the creative genius that he is, recognized that,” Kapler said, “and still had plenty to reach back for. When he doesn’t have one pitch, he always has the other, and the level of confidence in his fastball never wavers no matter where he’s in the game, no matter how many pitches he has.”
And on his 102nd and final pitch, he smoked Harper with a 95-mph heater, a pitch Kapler said is particularly daunting due to its “upshoot and finish.”
It certainly finished the Nationals, who fell eight games behind Atlanta. And the result only further tightened the NL Cy Young race.