Aaron Nola was expected to anchor the Philadelphia Phillies' rotation this year, his first full season in the major leagues.
Lately, however, Nola has come undone.
He is 0-3 with a 15.23 ERA in his last four starts, pitching no more than 3 2/3 innings in any of them, and manager Pete Mackanin said Saturday's outing against the Kansas City Royals is “very important” for the confidence of the 23-year-old right-hander.
Article continues below ...
“Four (bad) starts in a row is not something we want to see,” Mackanin said of Nola, the club's first-round pick (seventh overall) in 2014. “It's a matter of him getting back to where he was.”
More than anything else, Nola (5-7, 4.45 ERA) will be looking to improve his location when he opposes Royals left-hander Danny Duffy (3-1, 3.24).
“The more I think about it, and the more I look at the video, all his good starts, the ball was down at the knees,” Mackanin said. “All his bad starts, the ball's elevated. He's not keeping the ball down in the zone.”
Pitching coach Bob McClure has discussed that with Nola since his last start, a no-decision Sunday in San Francisco in which he allowed five runs and 10 hits over 3 1/3 innings. While Nola has done his usual bullpen work this week, he did not play catch, as is customary. The hope, Mackanin said, is that backing off “just kind of cleared his mind a little bit.”
Nola, an LSU product, sped through the Phillies' minor league chain. He made his major league debut on July 21, 2015, and finished last season 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA. He also logged 10 quality starts among his first 12 outings this season, giving Mackanin reason for optimism.
“I'll go out on a limb and say he's going to be special,” Mackanin said in early June. “I see no reason why he can't be an outstanding pitcher down the road. He's pretty good right now.”
Duffy, meanwhile, made 16 appearances out of the bullpen before joining the Kansas City rotation in mid-May. Saturday's start will be his 10th of the season. He matched his career high of eight innings in a 6-2 victory over St. Louis on Monday.
The only runs he allowed came on Matt Holliday's two-run homer in the first inning.
“I didn't really feel a need to settle down after that,” Duffy told mlb.com. “I thought I made a good pitch. He's just so strong. You just tip your cap in that situation.”
Duffy wound up surrendering six hits while striking out eight. He didn't walk a batter.
“It's nice to go eight innings,” he said, according to MLB.com. “Any time you can save the bullpen it's a good thing. Very gratifying.”
Duffy, who has never faced Philadelphia, finished June with 45 strikeouts in 36 innings — the most by a Royals pitcher in a calendar month since Zack Greinke had 49 in August 2009.
He will face a resurgent Philadelphia lineup. The Phillies hit .326 and scored 57 runs while going 5-4 on a road trip that wrapped up Wednesday, then had 12 hits in Friday's 4-3 victory. Cameron Rupp, who has hit safely in seven straight games, had three of them, while Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez had two apiece.
Peter Bourjos also singled to extend his hitting streak to 10 for Philadelphia, which has won four straight.
Kansas City's Alcides Escobar extended his hitting streak to 12 games, matching his career long, with a double Friday, and Kendrys Morales added a two-run homer. Morales, who batted at a .403 clip in June, has hit safely in seven straight games. He did, however, see his string of multi-hit games snapped at six.