PHILADELPHIA >> The 2013 Phillies had 89 losses, plenty of them ugly, the rest just bad enough for what was next. Their next franchise pitcher was next.
Plainly inept by then, their 2007-2011 NL East dynasty so old that the stadium giveaways from the era were close to being considered antiques, the Phillies would select seventh overall in the June draft of 2014. On any reasonable scale, that was high enough to ensure a star-level player, and for their fans to demand nothing else. So Aaron Nola it would be, a right-hander from LSU and a first-team All-American. He was 20 at the time. He was also given the usual treatment. That is, he was immediately expected, in at least some corners, to fail. He would be nothing more, the immediate wail went, than a No. 3 pitcher. Maybe a No. 2. A four, perhaps. But never, ever a No. 1.
Even then, that all seemed defeatist at best, juvenile at worst. For in what baseball era was it, actually, that a player selected as high as No. 7 was expected to be just another guy? Yet that was the popular early narrative around here, dutifully repeated in talk shows, and in some papers, too. His delivery was too sideways. His pitches were too slow. His demeanor was too something. Some other complaint, too. But that’s where the limit was set, and it was set early.
“Yeah, I’ve heard some of it,” Nola was saying early Sunday evening. “They are all going to say that. They all have their opinions, but their opinions don’t matter, because they are not the ones playing.”
Nola does have a side-arm delivery and something of a slingshot style, and that left him sore early, and occasionally dropped him onto injured lists. And somewhere, some pitching coach or expert on bone structure still might make the occasional face when he uncoils. But his delivery is oddly similar to that of Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, and all he did for the Phillies was pitch well enough to have his No. 14 painted next to Mike Schmidt’s No. 20 on an Ashburn Alley wall.
Nola is far from Cooperstown. But in improving to 6-1 Sunday when the Phillies outlasted the Mets, 4-2, he is starting, at least, to follow that trail. He’s 24, and he is among the National League leaders in ERA, wins, opponents’ batting average, winning percentage and innings pitched. Unless there is another way to keep that score, that makes him one of the most valuable starters in baseball.
Nola’s rise to excellence has been anything but a quick, mid-May flicker. Of his final 16 starts last season, Nola went at least six innings 13 times. From June 22 through July 26, he struck out at least seven in seven consecutive starts. Eleven times, he struck out at least eight, and in September, he blew away 11 Marlins in a game.
Nola has allowed two earned runs over his last 20.1 innings. Though he was perhaps a hair below his recent best Sunday, allowing nine hits in six innings, the Mets scored against him only on a solo home run from Yoenis Cespedes.
“Noles,” Gabe Kapler said, “was kind of Noles.”
So that’s where it has reached, with the pitcher once expected to be ordinary running a streak to 20 of home-game starts with at least six innings pitched, a level reached or surpassed only by Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee since the opening of Citizens Bank Park in 2004. It’s reached the point where the manager can confidently roll it into a conversation as if it has become expected.
“I think it’s more that we have a top 10 pitcher in baseball and we need to think about him in that way,” Kapler said. “The bar is super high every time Noles goes out there. That doesn’t mean that he is not going to have rough starts. He is human just like anybody else. You can’t help but expect greatness out of him, because that’s what we see on a regular basis and that’s what you’ve seen dating back to last year.”
With Jake Arrieta, Nola gives the top of the Phillies’ rotation a chance to dominate.
“I don’t know that there is a better one-two punch than those two guys,” Kapler said. “I’m sure we could sit in the room and debate it and bring up various conversations, but I’ll take our guys.”
If that surprises anyone, it’s not Nola.
“That’s pretty cool that he has that kind of confidence in me,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my part and go out and try to help the team win the best I can. That’s all I can do. It’s not really about me. It’s about winning as a whole, as a team.”
Even if Arrieta is a No. 1 starter, and he has shown early this season that he can pitch back to his All-Star form, that does not mean Nola is a No. 2. It means the Phillies have more than one ace, and it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2011, they won their division with Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in their rotation, in whichever order made sense at the time. But then baseball happened, age started to matter, contracts were massaged and the future was considered. And by 2013, the Phils were sufficiently inept to select high in the draft.
Five years later, with one of the best starting pitchers in the National League, they are enjoying their reward.
Contact Jack McCaffery @email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery