Aaron Nola’s late-season struggles continued in the biggest start of his Phillies career

Last Monday, as the Phillies embarked on their fateful final road trip with a nearly 75% chance of making the playoffs, Matt Klentak was asked for a self-evaluation of his fifth season on the job as general manager.



a baseball player holding a glove: September has been the cruelest month for Phillies starter Aaron Nola.


© CHARLES FOX/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
September has been the cruelest month for Phillies starter Aaron Nola.

“I think we’ll have time for the postmortem when the season is over,” he said, “whenever that is.”

Well, here we are.

All that’s left now — after a season-ending 5-0 whimper in Game 60 at Tropicana Field, the Phillies’ seventh loss in eight games — is the autopsy. It could get even more gruesome for Klentak than his bullpen’s 7.06 ERA.

Managing partner John Middleton must be wondering how $207.5 million — the Phillies’ estimated payroll, as calculated for luxury-tax purposes — couldn’t buy entry into a playoff field that grew from five teams to eight to recoup revenue in this pandemic-shortened season.

But while more than half of the National League is headed to the playoffs, the Phillies are going home, just as they have every year since 2011, the second-longest active postseason dry spell after the Seattle Mariners (2001).

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Aaron Nola comes up small again in big start

By every statistical measure, Aaron Nola has been among the best pitchers in baseball since 2018.

You wouldn’t have known that on Sunday.

In the biggest start of his career — as the Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants created an opening for the Phillies to drive on into the playoffs with a victory at Tropicana Field — Nola threw a dud, failing to make it out of the fourth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Very disappointing,” said Nola, who gave up three runs on six hits (all singles) and three walks in 3 2/3 innings. “Felt decent, but got myself in bad situations and they were on everything, pretty much. Just disappointing I couldn’t give the guys more. This is obviously not what I was looking for.”

Here’s the thing: It wasn’t out of character.

As good as Nola has been over the last three years — and entering Sunday, he ranked fourth in innings, tied for fifth in wins, seventh in strikeouts, and 10th in ERA among 89 pitchers who made at least 50 starts — things tend to unravel for him in the last month of the season.

In 17 starts over the last three Septembers, Nola has a 4.44 ERA, more than a run higher than his overall three-year mark of 3.16. Nine of his 19 losses since the beginning of the 2018 season have come in September. After going 0-3 with a 6.51 ERA down the stretch last season, he went 0-2 with a 6.60 ERA in his final three starts this year.

What gives?

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Nola said. “I wish I had an answer. Bad luck in September, I guess. I’m not changing anything at all just because it’s September. Still doing the same stuff, still preparing the same. I guess it’s just not going my way.”

Nola threw 31 pitches in the third inning Sunday against the Rays, then chucked 24 to record only two outs in the fourth. He had thrown 93 pitches overall when manager Joe Girardi replaced him.

Back in the dugout, Girardi had a message for the Phillies’ No. 1 starter.

“This guy, he’s a winner,” Girardi said. “He works as hard as any pitcher I’ve ever been around. There is never any stone unturned when it comes to Aaron Nola to be prepared for a start. Sometimes, you’re not going to have your ‘A’ stuff.”

For Nola, it doesn’t seem to show up enough in September.

The rundown

After a third consecutive September collapse, Middleton is bound to have questions. Klentak, under contract through 2022, will need to provide adequate answers — and solutions — to save his job, as Bob Brookover writes.

Bryce Harper spoke assertively and passionately after Sunday’s game about how to fix the Phillies. Unsurprisingly, it starts with re-signing J.T. Realmuto.

Silver lining for Phillies fans: Gabe Kapler didn’t make the playoffs, either. But with the Giants surprisingly in wild-card contention until the season’s last day, I caught up with Kapler over the weekend about lessons he learned from the last two years in Philadelphia.

Realmuto isn’t the Phillies’ only notable free agent. Re-signing Didi Gregorius will be an offseason issue, too, as Matt Breen writes.

Important dates

Tomorrow: Playoffs open with American League wild-card round.

Wednesday: National League wild-card round begins.

Oct. 20: Game 1 of the World Series in Arlington, Texas.

Five days after World Series ends: Free agency begins.

Feb. 27, 2021: Phillies open spring-training schedule vs. Blue Jays.

Stat of the day

By now, you might have heard about the Phillies’ historically bad bullpen, which finished the season with a 7.06 ERA. But there are other numbers that reveal the depth of the relievers’ struggles.

Consider this: The Phillies had a lead at some point in 49 of their 60 games and went only 28-21 in those contests.

And this: The Phillies blew eight three-run leads.

Oh, and this: Phillies relievers had more blown saves (14) than saves (11).

“We won 28 games,” Girardi said. “I think we could have just as easily won 38 games, 35 games. I really do.”

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Answer: Hey, Tom. Thanks for the question. For as much as we’ve talked about Realmuto, we probably haven’t spent nearly enough time on Gregorius, who might have been the Phillies’ most consistent player through the 60 games.

Gregorius signed a one-year contract to reestablish his value after coming back from elbow surgery. He did exactly that, and now he’ll go back out on the market in search of a multiyear deal. With Gregorius being one of the top three free-agent shortstops (with Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons), the odds are good that he’ll get one.

The Phillies have $36.5 million (for luxury-tax purposes) coming off the books with Jake Arrieta and David Robertson, but Realmuto and Gregorius figure to cost more than that. If the Phillies must choose, it might come down to this: Who will be the catcher if Realmuto leaves? If Gregorius goes, Jean Segura could move back to shortstop until top prospect Bryson Stott is ready to come up.

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