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There's a Dutch phrase, totaalvoetbal, meaning "total football" in English. It was a tactic popularized by the Netherlands national soccer team in the 1970s. It functions as a system where every player, can at any time, take over the role of any other outfield player on the pitch.

That seems to be what the Philadelphia Phillies are attempting to do with their rotation. Unlike almost every other team in baseball, theirs' doesn't have a clear order. Each starter can be the ace on any given day, and each picks up the slack left by the other pitchers on the team.

But, when Phillies Opening Day starter Aaron Nola was almost entirely written off by the time he'd finished his second start of 2022, it looked like that 'totaalvoetbal' model might not work.

Now in the final guaranteed year of his contract, Nola struggled to locate the ball at the outset of the 2022 season. He began the year giving up home runs and hitting batters at a significant rate. 

After six dominant innings against a weak Oakland Athletics lineup on Opening Day, Nola broke down, allowing three runs without picking up a single out in the seventh.

His following start against the New York Mets was no better. While he made it through the first three innings only allowing one run, the Mets marred Nola's line after working two walks and hitting a game-altering home run.

By the fourth inning, Nola's command has unraveled entirely. He allowed an extra-base hit, a walk and two(!) hit-by-pitches, recording just one out in the process. Nola's ERA ballooned to 6.75 and his FIP to 6.63.

With the way things were trending, it looked like his $16 million club option for 2023—which seemed certain to be picked up—was no longer a sure thing. Yes, those first 9.1 innings were a small sample size, but judging by the way Nola had performed, it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

However, since that debacle, Nola has returned to the front-line pitcher we saw in 2019 and 2020, tossing 18.1 innings over his last three starts for an ERA of 2.45 and FIP of 2.44. In those starts, he's held batters to an OPS of just .617 and given up only six extra-base hits.

Nola will never return to his 2018 form, that was an enigma the Phillies will almost assuredly never see again. But, the player they witnessed in 2019 and 2020 is back.

As much as the Phillies would like to make a Cy Young contender out of Nola, they don't need that version of the pitcher to make a successful team. The rotation, as it's constructed, is built without a weak link.

Every day, the Phillies send out a starter that's competent. Long gone are the days of Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and Adam Morgan being placed on the front line as cannon fodder. The Phillies fifth starter, Kyle Gibson, has statistically been the Phillies best starter in 2022.

Aaron Nola doesn't have to be the ace any more because, at their best, the Phillies have five aces.

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