SAN DIEGO — Last August, when Aaron and Austin Nola met at Petco Park, it was the first time the two brothers faced each other on a major league stage. Phillies right-hander Aaron had three fastballs. Austin, the Padres catcher, hit while swinging.
In December, Aaron had a Christmas present for Austin: the baseball he threw for the third strike.
There are still six months until Christmas 2022. But it was the big brother who did his shopping at the start of the year.
Austin Nola picked the perfect time for his first Major League hit against his younger brother on Friday night. He threw a free kick into the opposite field that proved decisive in the Padres’ 1-0 win over the Phillies at Petco Park.
“Yeah, he hit it,” Aaron said. “He pushed it there. I probably won’t hear the end of it for a while, but good luck.
That’s how things usually went in their backyard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Wiffle ball was the game of choice, and Austin, about three years older and changeable, almost always got the better of those matchups.
“He was always throwing around the yard, trying to get me out,” said Austin, who is 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 side of those duels against one of the best starting pitchers in the sport. And these were big league duels, with real big league stakes. Austin went into his fifth at bat against his brother, hitless with two strikeouts. He fell behind in the count, 0-2, swinging and missing to a wicked curveball from Aaron, 29.
“Man, I was 0-2 the whole game against him,” Austin said. “For the past two years, I’ve been 0-2. It’s not new. It is: one shot, two shots. And I’m like, ‘Good God.’ Then I look up at him, and he’s just locked up.
Aaron returned to fastball, and this time Austin was ready, spraying a line drive to right field that tackled Eric Hosmer, who had doubled in frame earlier. That proved enough – as, behind the plate, Austin called nine shutout executives, including five from Padres rookie southpaw MacKenzie Gore.
“We played very well against a very good arm and a good team, and we won,” Gore said. “And yeah, [Nola’s single] was great. You couldn’t write it better.
Aaron arrived in town Wednesday night and spent most of his free time at Austin’s house. But before the game, Austin was quick to note that they “didn’t say a word about baseball.”
That’s bound to change, now that they have something relevant enough to discuss. However, after the match, Austin had nothing but praise for his younger brother.
“Glad we got the win, but then your brother loses,” Austin said. “He threw an incredible game. It’s fun to watch it. There is no doubt about it. He did it to us twice. He pitched seven innings, pitched eight innings last year. What a performance from him.
Austin’s single will be a highlight the Nola family will remember for years. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Lately, the Padres’ backstop has started to heat up at home plate, as he and Jorge Alfaro have split catching duties relatively evenly.
These two have suddenly cemented the receiver position in San Diego, once considered a major need. After a rocky start to the season offensively, Austin has hit base at a .432 clip over the past two weeks.
“He’s swinging a lot better, there’s no doubt about it,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “Sometimes you get a little burned out. You expect a little more from yourself at the start of the year, and it lasts a little longer. We’ve had, in fact, a few guys like that. But now he starts swinging the bat, using the whole court.
Evidenced by the decisive blow of Friday night. Aaron said he was trying to elevate his fastball a bit more, in the outside corner. Austin went with the pitch and shot it into right field, clean. Upon reaching first base, Austin seemed to say “Finally.”
“Facing him is exhausting because, from a catching perspective, you have your pitcher and you run your pitcher through,” Austin said. “And then you have to move on to the fact that now I’m facing my brother in a Major League game, and he’s not letting go.”
Austin continually underscored the bittersweet nature of registering a game-winning shot in a championship game against a family member. Aaron, meanwhile, must have rolled his eyes when he glanced toward first base after giving up his first and only run.
“Of all the people,” Aaron said. “Do it against someone else. … Yeah, I’ll hear about it tonight.
And maybe again in December.
That’s how the family’s bragging rights work, and they’re in Austin for 2022.