The Philadelphia Phillies led the San Diego Padres by two runs at Petco Park, with a game in hand in the best-of-seven series. It was the end of the fifth. There was a runner first, one out, a 0-2 count.
What happened next became an indelible part of the history of both the sport of baseball and the Nola family of Baton Rouge. And it might have flipped the entire NLCS as well.
When Padres catcher Austin Nola fired a fastball into right field from Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola and hit Ha-Seong Kim, who had started the field from the start, San Diego started a five-run inning that resulted in a disheartening loss to a triumphant 8-5 win and sent the series tied at one game apiece to Philadelphia this weekend.
It’s not every day that a pitcher and batter share the same blood stand that’s 60 feet 6 inches apart in October. The Nola brothers’ matchup was, in fact, the first brother-to-brother, pitcher-to-batter duel in postseason history. Aaron, the younger of the two, grounded Austin out in the second. In the fifth, the big brother got his revenge.
“We both knew we would do anything to help our team win,” said Austin Nola. “I think that was understood. The scale of the game, the scale of the situation – nothing would be given up [easily].”
But the matchup would have been just a historical curiosity if Austin Nola’s single hadn’t spawned the barrage. The Padres’ five-run breakout knocked Aaron Nola out of the game, turned a 4-2 deficit into a 7-4 lead, sent a sell-out crowd of 44,607 into euphoric spasms and essentially pulled San Diego’s season off the brink game back abyss. It’s been a magical month for the Padres, who have already defeated two teams, the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, who combined finished 34 games ahead of them in league standings. But going to Philadelphia two games in that series would have tempted fate.
“We’re always in every game, every inning,” said Austin Nola. “That is our motto. That is our identity.”
“Flush it,” Aaron Nola said of Wednesday’s loss. “Go back home, start over.”
Four of the Padres’ five runs in the fifth were clinched by Juan Soto (RBI doubles), Brandon Drury (two-run singles) and Josh Bell (RBI singles), who happen to be general manager AJ Preller’s top three pickups at the close in summer. Bell and Drury both added solo homers as the three new Padres combined went 6 for 12 with three extra base hits and six RBI.
The Padres’ offense undid – and then some – the damage done by the Phillies in the second round when they covered four runs against Padres lefty Blake Snell with a series of bleeders and bloopers, aided by Soto’s adventurous defense at right Field. On back-to-back batters, Soto, never mistaken for a Gold Glove outfielder, made a throwing error and lost a flyball in the sun.
The Phillies’ four-run frame was appropriately initiated by Bryce Harper, who — to the same pitcher, Snell, who broke his thumb with an inside fastball in June, resulting in a two-month stint on the injured list — flicked a single to the flat left center to derive the second.
Harper, who turned 30 on Sunday, is one of the greatest Octobers in recent history; He added a double in the sixth and has at least one extra base hit in seven straight playoff games, hitting .419 with a 1.390 on base plus slugging percentage this postseason.
The Phillies were 4-2 up when the closing point of game five began and Nola filled in for Nola. Up in the stands, parents AJ and Stacie braced themselves for the whirlwind of conflicting emotions they knew were coming. Dad wore a Phillies jersey over a Padres jersey and alternated between the two as needed to remain neutral.
Aaron had been a bonus baby and an All-Star — the seventh pick of the 2014 draft, which was just over a year after he was drafted into the majors. By at least one widely used metric – wins over substitutes – he was the top starting pitcher in baseball this season, amassing a WAR of 6.3 (via FanGraphs), just ahead of Carlos Rodon and Justin Verlander. In two previous starts for the Phillies this postseason, spanning 12⅔ innings, he hadn’t given up a deserved run.
Austin, three years his senior, was the classic grinder, a five-round shortstop pick who cycled through three organizations and spent most of his 13-year pro career in the minors, only breaking through after converting to catcher.
With Kim leading with a single and dancing from first base, Aaron Nola started his brother with a cutter that Austin fouled. A hit and miss on a 94 mph fastball left the count 0-2 and a fouled back sinker kept them there.
“Typical plate performance against my brother: I’m down 0-2,” said Austin, who is 1-for-5 against Aaron in six regular-season plateau appearances with an RBI, a walk and two strikeouts. “I should just go up there and say, ‘Hit me two punches.’ ”
Aaron’s fourth climb would be a 95 mph sinker. Kim started from the start and didn’t stop sprinting until he hit home plate. Mom and Dad craned their necks to watch, knowing that by the end of the afternoon they would probably be elated for one son, devastated for the other.
And Austin Nola whipped his racquet through the zone and connected, and suddenly the NLCS and the Nola family’s next vacation reunion took on a whole new dimension.