Phillies turn to pending free agent Aaron Nola to pitch them past Arizona and into World Series

With a second straight trip to the World Series at stake, Nola gets the call Monday night against Arizona in the NLCS.

Aaron Nola pitching

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola throws against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning in Game 2 of the baseball NL Championship Series in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Aaron Nola takes the ball in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series with a couple of familiar questions swirling around him.

Can he pitch the Phillies one win closer to a World Series title?

If not, might this be his last start in a Philadelphia uniform?

The answer to the first query is an easy one — a resounding yes. Nola is 3-0 in the postseason — including seven shutout innings in the NL wild-card clincher against Miami — with a 0.96 ERA. He has allowed two runs in 18 2/3 innings, struck out 19 and walked two.

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With a second straight trip to the World Series at stake, Nola gets the call Monday night against Arizona in the NLCS.

Now, as for his last start with the Phillies…

If he wins Monday, he’s sure to pitch again. But Nola knows each postseason outing has the potential of serving as his last one with the Phillies as he nears the end of his five-year contract.

The 30-year-old Nola is eligible for free agency after the World Series because his agent and the front office broke off negotiations in spring training. Nola, the longest-tenured player on these Phillies, wanted to stay focused this season on doing his part to win Philadelphia’s first World Series crown since 2008.

With each shutdown inning in the postseason, Nola has significantly added value to his next contract. He’s also made it clear, he doesn’t want to go far to find a new team. In fact, he kind of likes the one he’s played for in all nine major league seasons.

Nola wants to stay in Philly.

“I really do. I love it here,” he said. “Obviously, it’s the only place I’ve been. I came up through some special times in the rebuilding era. To be on a team like I am now, it’s really cool and special to see and to be a part of all the success and failures to get to where we are now.”

Throw Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani out of the picture and the market for free-agent pitchers is thin. Especially one with a resume like Nola’s — five seasons of 200-plus strikeouts, five seasons of 30-plus starts, and a 90-71 career record.

Nola endured three straight 90-loss seasons with the Phillies before the arrivals of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Kyle Schwarber and fellow ace Zack Wheeler turned the Phillies into contenders.

He wants to see it through with a World Series parade.

“Each year better players came through, better guys coming through, forming new relationships, so obviously I love that part about it,” Nola said.

The Phillies’ clubhouse has become a family environment, for sure. Nick Castellanos, Harper and Wheeler have made their kids as much a part of the Phillies as the “Daycare” kids — the nickname given to young players like Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott and Brandon Marsh.

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“I see so many kids running around the clubhouse and guys and their sons and daughters,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to see.”

He and his wife, Hunter Jayde, are about to join the parenting club. Nola’s wife posted a pregnancy announcement on her Instagram page hours after the dad-to-be tossed seven shutout innings against the Marlins to earn, ahem, a berth in the NL Division Series.

Not a bad night.

But will the future baby Nola wear a Phillies onesie?

The next step, at least toward a World Series, is knocking off the Diamondbacks. Arizona looked dazed and defeated after it dropped the first two NLCS games against Philadelphia’s homer-heavy lineup. But the Diamondbacks had the gumption to rally late against Philadelphia’s bullpen — an era of kinder, gentler Phillies fans are having their patience tested by Craig Kimbrel — and evened the best-of-seven series at Chase Field.

Schwarber, Harper and Realmuto all homered and the Phillies beat the Diamondbacks 6-1 in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead. Arizona sends Merrill Kelly (1-1, 3.00 ERA) to the mound in Game 6.

“I think a lot of people didn’t expect us to be here, so I think the fact that we can all kind of come together in that clubhouse and kind of cherish that and kind of use that to our advantage has been big,” Kelly said.

Kelly found himself in a minor fuss ahead of his Game 2 start when he said he doubted Phillies fans could possibly be louder than the ones heard rooting for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.

Three solo homers allowed, one loss and 45,000 fans roasting him with “Merr-ill! Merr-ill!” chants later, Kelly walked back his words and said he’s now more comfortable in the uncomfortable atmosphere ahead.

“I know the dimensions, know the vantage point from the pitcher’s mound, that type of thing,” he said. “I think I can take just the whole in-game experience and it won’t be fresh.”

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