ST. LOUIS – The champagne bottles are popping, the music is booming and the Phillies are celebrating.
Aaron Nola is quizzed Monday night inside a throbbing visitors’ clubhouse at Minute Maid Park about what it’s like to finally make the playoffs. Several people lean in to listen, but Nola’s words are barely audible. Even in the hubbub of the Phillies’ first playoff appearance since 2011, he’s more relaxed than ever, which means he speaks as softly as ever.
He is smiling. It’s the only way to know he’s having fun.
Nola, who threw 6 2/3 perfect innings before giving up a few hits in Monday’s playoff deciding game against the Astros, will start Game 2 of the NL Wild Card Series against the Cardinals on Saturday night at Busch Stadium. . After a ninth-inning comeback in Game 1, the Phillies can clinch a trip to the NL Division Series against the Braves with a win.
Nola waits impatiently for her shot. He’s as competitive as anyone in the Phillies clubhouse, although if you watch him pitch it’s impossible to know what he thinks of anything. His ability to mask his emotions is so prized that when he rammed his glove into the back of the dugout last week after serving a home run at Wrigley Field, it almost surprised Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson.
It was the first time in years (ever?) that Nola showed frustration on camera.
“It’s flat, no expressions,” Thomson said.
“I’ve always thought that if you don’t show any emotion, no one can really grasp it,” Nola said. “As pitchers, if somebody’s showing a lot of emotion, or if they’re feeling down, a hitter can feel it, right? Or vice versa. I have the impression that this can be an advantage for the opponent. If you give up on a bad move, what are you going to do about it? Have the blues? It makes it worse because then you make another bad throw and it spirals. The only thing you can do is focus on the next throw.
Nola has worked on this thought process over the years, but it also seems to be part of her DNA. Nola doesn’t just go with the flow on the mound. He follows the current everywhere. How else can you explain why a 29-year-old big leaguer spends the offseason traveling the country in a van, sleeping in Cracker Barrel parking lots along the way?
Nola has spent the past offseason driving and living in a hot-blooded Mercedes-Benz Sprinter pickup truck with his fiancée, Hunter, and their dog, Boone. They traveled to Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky and across the Great West including Utah, Arizona and California.
Nola, who loved to travel and had always wanted a van, started watching van videos a few years ago on YouTube.
“I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna do this. I’m gonna get one,'” Nola said. “I called the companies to see what the wait time was. It was like, a year and a half to two years. I was like, ‘This is going to take too long. I want to travel now.
So he bought a barebones van and started working on it with the help of a friend.
“Insulate it, put wood on the ceiling and on the walls,” he said. “Vinyl floor down, some rubber floor. Put a bed in it, a small sofa bed. I can stand in it. I probably have about an inch, inch and a half of space. We just have the plumbing and cabinetry to do. We have a fridge. We have hangers for clothes.
They have a popup cooker for cooking. They have a compost toilet. There are two large batteries in the back and a solar panel on the roof for power. Everything works on 12 volts. At the moment, cabinets are being installed.
There is no television. If they want to watch a show, they download something to the iPad.
“We fly so much during the year,” he said. “When I get the chance to hit the road, I love it. It’s peaceful.
Nola, his fiancée and their dogs (they have two now) hope to travel out west again this offseason, hopefully after the World Series.
“I love hitting the road,” he said. “We just stay at Cracker Barrels because you can stay at any Cracker Barrel out back [parking lot]. Usually, wherever we’re going, if we have a few hours left, I’ll look for a Cracker Barrel closest to the highway. We try to grab something to eat there that night, head back, watch a movie, go to sleep and get up the next morning.
Nola eats the same thing there every time, morning, noon or evening.
“Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs,” he said.
Even if he arrives at 8 p.m.?
“Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs,” he said with a laugh.
Phillies ace Zack Wheeler laughed Thursday when asked if he’s ever seen Nola raise his voice. Years ago, when Nola signed a contract extension with the Phillies, even his parents said they never saw him get upset.
“Yes, me and [Zach] Eflin can ruffle his feathers a bit,” Wheeler said with a smile. “Never during the game, just clubhouse type stuff. But he goes in match 2, you can’t ask for anything more. It’s a special talent. We saw what he did the other day in a game we needed, and he took a big step forward for us.
Nola is also ready for the match 2 challenge.
“I’ve always been competitive, ever since I was young,” he said. “My brother [Padres catcher Austin Nola] and me, we were always in competition with each other, no matter what. And now we are here at the highest level of baseball. You have to be competitive. »
You just won’t know how competitive it is just by looking at it.
“I always love watching guys and how they handle things,” Nola said. “If they go out, line up, hit, miss a ball and get a hit, or give up a few homers in a row, I always like to watch that.”
Nola thinks an opponent can learn something from those moments, which is why no matter what happens in Game 2, you won’t know what he’s up to by watching him.