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It was a day of aces in the National League on Thursday, with the top four contenders for the Cy Young Award starting, plus some random three-time World Series champion who has won a few big games in his career. Let’s see how it all shook out.

Aaron Nola versus Max Scherzer, Phillies at Nationals

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By one measure, this was the best pitching matchup this deep into a season in 33 years. It was the first time since September 1985 that two starters with sub-2.25 ERAs and at least 150 innings squared off against each other. That game lived up to the hype as Dwight Gooden tossed nine scoreless innings for the Mets — only to see John Tudor of the Cardinals throw a 10-inning shutout to win 1-0.

This showdown was nearly as impressive. Early on, it looked like one of those games where Scherzer just grips it and rips it and blows away the opposing team. He took a no-hitter into the fifth, when Jorge Alfaro singled in the hole off Trea Turner’s glove — a play that could have been made, but was correctly ruled a hit.

In the seventh, Scherzer walked Maikel Franco on a 3-2, 97 mph fastball low and in — a pitch that could have gone either way. Odubel Herrera followed with a 420-foot home run to right field off a 1-0 cutter with little action, Scherzer’s 101st pitch.

Nola, meanwhile was, brilliant. The soft-spoken righty from Catholic High School in Baton Rouge and LSU faced a minor jam in the third with a runner on third and one out, but fanned Adam Eaton on a 1-2 curveball that dipped below the knees on the corner, basically an unhittable pitch unless the batter guesses right and flips it into left field.

Aaron Nola outdueled Max Scherzer in a battle of NL East aces, staking his claim to the Cy Young Award. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The whole sequence to Eaton was a lesson in pitching: curveball on the outside corner, called a ball; four-seam fastball on the outside corner, fouled off; sinker taken for strike two; another four-seamer on the outside corner, fouled off; four-seamer on the insider corner that Eaton managed to foul off; then the nasty hook.

The next jam came in the bottom of the eighth. With two out, Eaton doubled and Turner walked, bringing up Bryce Harper. It tells you what kind of faith Gabe Kapler has in Nola that he skipped the lefty-lefty matchup and kept Nola in the game. He fanned Harper on five pitches, all three strikes swinging, the final one a 95 mph fastball up in the zone. That was Nola’s 102nd pitch of the game.

Pat Neshek finished off the 2-0 victory, a big dagger to the Nationals’ slim chances of making a late rush to an NL East title.

Does this move Nola to the forefront of the NL Cy Young race? Perhaps. He’s now 15-3 with a 2.13 ERA. Scherzer is 16-6 with a 2.13 ERA. Scherzer has a big edge in strikeouts, 244-169, and has pitched 12⅔ more innings (and allowed seven more runs than Nola). On the other hand, Nola has allowed much less damage when batters make contract: eight home runs and a .276 slugging percentage versus 18 and .320 for Scherzer.

One thing to consider in Nola’s favor is the atrocious Phillies defense that ranks worst in the majors at minus-98 Defensive Runs Saved. Mark Simon just wrote a piece explaining how the Diamondbacks’ defense rates so much better — nearly 200 runs better, in fact.

Even if you think that overstates things a bit, I reached out to a couple of Phillies fans I know who agreed that the team’s defense has been legitimately terrible. So Nola has matched Scherzer in run prevention despite a worse defense and a more difficult home park to pitch in.

It’s also worth noting that in six starts versus the Nationals and Braves, Nola is 4-1 with a 2.03 ERA. He’s pitched great against the teams the Phillies have most needed to beat. If you like strikeouts, Scherzer’s your guy. If you like the rest of the package, you might have to go with Nola.

Madison Bumgarner versus Jacob deGrom, Giants at Mets

Of course, deGrom has something to say about that Cy Young Award, given that he allowed one earned runs in six innings against the Giants to keep his ERA at a meager 1.71. Alas, he once again was plagued by a lack of run support, he gave up a second, unearned run, and the Giants beat the Mets 3-1, dropping deGrom to 8-8 in 26 starts despite that sub-2.00 ERA.

What’s happened so far to deGrom is basically unprecedented. I checked all pitchers who made at least 25 starts with a sub-2.00 ERA and only two modern pitchers come close to deGrom’s inability to get credit for wins despite allowing so few runs. Tommy John went 10-5 with a 1.98 ERA in 25 starts for the White Sox in 1968 (the Year of the Pitcher, when any runs were at a premium). Gary Peters went 12-10 with a 1.98 ERA for the White Sox in 1966, starting 27 games.

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Jacob deGrom is handed another tough loss after going six innings with 10 strikeouts.

There are a few other similar cases. Joe Magrane won the NL ERA title for the Cardinals in 1988 with a 2.18 mark, but went just 5-9 in 24 starts. Felix Hernandez has the fewest wins for a Cy Young starting pitcher in a non-strike season, going 13-12 with a 2.27 ERA in 2010. Hernandez’s record was maybe even more amazing since he made 34 starts and pitched 249⅔ innings.

Anyway, deGrom has allowed 40 runs in 174 innings — the same number of runs as Nola in five more innings. So while he has an edge in ERA, they’re nearly identical in overall run prevention. DeGrom pitches in the better pitchers’ park (although he has a 1.85 ERA on the road). Like Nola, he’s been stingy with the long ball, allowing just eight home runs.

As good as deGrom was Thursday, Bumgarner was a little better, allowing just one run and five hits over eight innings. He even drove in a run with a double off deGrom. He’s 5-5 with a 2.88 ERA over 15 starts and you can’t help but wonder if the Giants would have two or three more wins if MadBum hadn’t missed those 11 or 12 starts at the beginning of the season.

As always, Bumgarner’s year-to-year consistency is amazing, even after the dirt-bike accident last year and the broken finger this year. His career ERAs have ranged between 2.74 and 3.37. His fastball still sits 90 to 92, although he is throwing it less often this season (and throwing more curveballs and changeups). His strikeout rate, however, is at 20.5 percent, his lowest since his rookie season in 2010 and a big drop from 27.5 percent in 2016. It’s possible that he’s now entering the post-peak phase of his career.

Kyle Freeland versus the Padres at Coors Field

The young Rockies lefty is a distant fourth in Cy Young consideration and name recognition, but a 2.96 ERA is a remarkable achievement for a Colorado starter — and that includes a 2.27 ERA at Coors Field. Maybe it’s not a surprise that Freeland has fared well: He’s from Denver, so he grew up pitching in the thin air.

The advanced metrics don’t give Freeland near the credit as the other top guys because of a so-so 20.6 strikeout rate. That’s well below the rate of the other three:

Scherzer: 34.6 percent (first in NL)
deGrom: 31.5 percent (second in NL)
Nola: 25.6 percent (seventh in NL)
Freeland: 20.6 percent (21st in NL)

Freeland does get a lot of ground balls (like Nola, he’s over 50 percent) and he’s been helped by a high strand rate (fourth-best among NL starters). But the other three top starters are also above 80 percent. Like those guys, Freeland gets the outs when he needs them most.

It looked like Freeland might lose Thursday’s game, as he left in the seventh inning with a 2-1 lead, one out and a runner on first, only to see Bryan Shaw cough up the lead, with help from Trevor Story’s error. The Rockies, however, pulled out a dramatic 4-3 victory when Ian Desmond did this with two out in the bottom of the ninth:

The Rockies have won 10 of 12, with three of those victories coming in walk-off fashion. Freeland didn’t get the win on his ledger, but I think he’s happy with the result.


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