Aaron Nola stars as Phillies blank Marlins, 4-0, and sweeps last series before the All-Star break

MIAMI — Expectations weren’t terribly high for Aaron Nola this season. He was coming off a 2021 in which he’d posted a 4.63 ERA, the second-highest mark of his first seven seasons. His 2018 All-Star campaign, when he went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA and 224 strikeouts, felt like a distant memory. It was hard to imagine him replicating that type of production again, especially coming off a down year.

But Nola has been dominating this season and in the Phillies’ 4-0 win on Sunday, he gave a glimpse of his 2018 self. The right-hander pitched 8⅓ innings and held the Marlins to four hits and one walk. He had 10 strikeouts, the 25th time he’s reached double figures in his career.

“He was outstanding,” interim manager Rob Thomson said of Nola. “Fastball location was great, curveball was good, changeup was … everything was good. A lot of soft contact. He managed his pitch count extremely well. He was unbelievable.”

Nola threw 108 pitches before one-out singles put Miami runners on first and second in the ninth inning. Jose Alvarado came in to retire the next two batters and earn his first save of the season. It was easily Nola’s best start of the season, and it came just a few days after one of his worst. On July 11, in St. Louis, he went seven innings but allowed five earned runs, tied for the most he has allowed all year. On Sunday, he was on cruise control.

And so were the Phillies, who needed some momentum to take with them as they entered the All-Star break. When they arrived in Miami on Thursday, they had lost four straight games—their longest losing streak under Thomson. But they quickly turned things around, against a team that has given them trouble in the past.

With their win on Sunday, the Phillies swept the Marlins in Miami for the first time since Sept. 13-15, 2010. The starting pitchers for that series were Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay. That team went on to win the NL East, only to fall to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS.

Much has changed since the Phillies’ previous sweep in Miami. The Phillies made the playoffs one more time — in 2011 — and haven’t been back since. After finishing first in their division from 2007-11, they haven’t finished higher than third since 2012. And at 49-43, they likely won’t change that this year, with the Mets sitting at 24 games over .500 and the Braves not far behind.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe the Phillies could make the playoffs. With an abundance of injuries to contend with, the team has still managed to make it to the All-Star break six games above .500. They arrive at the All-Star break sitting in third place in the NL wild-card standings, and with some of that aforementioned momentum.

“I think it’s all how we envisioned it,” said left fielder Kyle Schwarber. “There’s going to be good months and there’s going to be bad months. I think that we were all kind of figuring it out early on and to see the way everyone has rallied around the group … it’s really cool to see how this group has become such a team now. Everyone loves each other. And that’s what it’s going to take.

“In the second half, there might be a little bit more adversity. There might. You never now. I know that we’ll be more than equipped to face that. If it’s a losing streak, whatever it is. We’ll be very equipped to handle anything that comes at us. I’m not going to put anything past this group.”

In short, a lot is going right for the Phillies at the moment. After a couple of ice-cold games, the offense is starting to heat up. Ranger Suárez, back from the injured list, is pitching like the 2021 version of himself. The bullpen entered Sunday’s game with a 2.94 ERA — good for fourth-best in baseball — and now it has an extra arm in JoJo Romero.

More reinforcements will come at the trade deadline on Aug. 2. After that, the Phillies’ schedule gets much easier. Of their 18 remaining series after Aug. 2, 11 are against teams that are currently below .500. It isn’t a lock, but if you look closely, and maybe with a healthy dose of optimism, you can see a path to October.

» READ MORE: Phillies’ Zach Eflin to be reevaluated after pitching simulation game and feeling ‘a little sore’

After a 10-run game on Saturday, the Phillies’ offense gave Nola a four-run cushion in the fourth inning Sunday. Alec Bohm went 2-for-4 with an RBI double, an encouraging sign in his second game back since he dislocated his left ring finger. Matt Vierling hit an RBI double as well, and Yairo Muñoz hit a two-run homer, his third home run of the season.

“It’s massive,” Schwarber said of the younger players’ performances. “To see what happened early in the year, we get some injuries and have a lot of different faces in here trying to fill some voids, and these guys have been nails. Stott, Vierling, Muñoz, D-Hall, you can name off the list. Look at the pitching staff, too — Mark Appel came up and did a heck of a job. That’s what it’s going to take to get to where we need to be. So, they did a fantastic job. I think they should be very much praised for what they’ve done this first half, and we have to continue that in the second half.”

After the game, right-hander Zach Eflin confirmed that he felt soreness in right knee following a simulated game Saturday. Eflin believes he can still contribute in the second half, but he knows he has to make sure he’s fully healthy before he returns.

“It’s one of those things where it has to go away before you get back out there,” he said. “Or else it comes right back. We’re day to day.”

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