SAN DIEGO — Last August, when Aaron and Austin Nola met at Petco Park, it marked the first time the two brothers had squared off on a big league stage. Aaron, the Phillies right-hander, dialed up three fastballs. Austin, the Padres catcher, struck out swinging.
Come December, Aaron had a Christmas present for Austin: the baseball he threw for strike three.
There are still six months until Christmas 2022. But it was older brother who got his shopping done early this year.
Austin Nola picked the perfect time for his first Major League hit against his younger brother on Friday night. He smacked a go-ahead, opposite-field single that proved decisive in the Padres’ 1-0 victory over the Phillies at Petco Park.
“Yeah, he hit it,” Aaron said. “He poked it out there. Probably won’t hear the end of it for a while, but good bit of hitting.”
That’s the way it generally used to go in their backyard in Baton Rouge, La. Wiffle ball was the game of choice, and Austin, older by some three years and change, almost always got the better of those matchups.
“He was always making up pitches in the backyard, trying to get me out,” said Austin, who’s now 32. “That was when he was younger, and I was older. Now he’s obviously the man.”
Suddenly, it was Austin on the wrong end of those duels against one of the sport’s best starting pitchers. And these were big league duels, with real big league stakes. Austin entered his fifth at-bat against his brother, hitless with two strikeouts. He fell behind in the count, 0-2, swinging and missing at a nasty curveball from the 29-year-old Aaron.
“Man, I was 0-2 the whole game against him,” Austin said. “The past two years, I’ve been 0-2. It’s nothing new. He’s: one strike, two strikes. And I’m like, ‘Good lord.’ Then I look up at him, and he’s just locked in.”
Aaron went back to the fastball, and this time Austin was ready, spraying a line drive to right field that plated Eric Hosmer, who had doubled earlier in the frame. That proved to be enough – because, behind the plate, Austin called nine shutout frames, including five from Padres rookie left-hander MacKenzie Gore.
“We played really well against a really good arm and a good team, and we won,” Gore said. “And, yeah, [Nola’s single] was awesome. You couldn’t write it any better.”
Aaron got into town on Wednesday night, and he spent practically all of his spare time at Austin’s place. But prior to the game, Austin was quick to note they “haven’t said a word about baseball.”
That’s bound to change, now that they have something fairly relevant to talk about. Though, after the game, Austin had nothing but praise for his younger brother.
“Glad we got the win, but then your brother gets the loss,” Austin said. “He pitched an unbelievable game. It’s fun to watch him. There’s no doubt about it. He’s done it twice to us. He threw seven innings, threw eight innings last year. What a performance by him.”
Austin’s go-ahead single will be a highlight the Nola family remembers for years. But it didn’t come from nowhere. Lately, the Padres backstop has begun to heat up at the plate, as he and Jorge Alfaro have split catching duties relatively evenly.
Those two have suddenly solidified the catcher position in San Diego, once considered a major area of need. After a rough start to the season offensively, Austin has reached base at a .432 clip over the past two weeks.
“He’s swinging a lot better, no doubt about it,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “Sometimes you get worn down a little bit. You’re expecting a little bit more out of yourself early on in the year, and it goes on for a little bit longer. We’ve had, actually, a few guys like that. But now he’s starting to swing the bat, use the whole field.”
As evidenced by the decisive hit on Friday night. Aaron said he was trying to elevate his fastball a bit more, on the outside corner. Austin went with the pitch and shot it to right field, cleanly. Upon reaching first base, Austin appeared to mouth, “Finally.”
“Facing him is exhausting, because, from a catching standpoint, you have your pitcher and getting your pitcher through it,” Austin said. “And then you have to switch over to the fact that now I’m facing my brother in a Major League game, and he’s not letting up.”
Austin continually pointed out the bittersweet nature of recording a pivotal hit in a big league game against a family member. Aaron, meanwhile, had to roll his eyes when he glanced toward first base after surrendering his first and only run.
“Of all the people,” Aaron said. “Do it against somebody else. … Yeah, I’ll hear about it tonight.”
And perhaps again this December.
That’s just the way family bragging rights work, and they’re Austin’s for 2022.