CINCINNATI – When Carlos Ruiz caught Cole Hamels’ final warm-up pitch in the bullpen Sunday night, he knew the 26-year-old lefthander had something special cooking inside that lanky body of his.
“I could see it in his face,” Ruiz said. “His face said he was ready to go. I told him, ‘We’ve been here before. You’re the man. Get it done.’ “ Hamels got it done, that’s for sure.
The Phillies are headed to their third straight National League Championship Series and they have their 2008 postseason hero to thank for completing the journey. Hamels was the NLCS and World Series MVP in 2008, but he never pitched a game in that postseason quite as good as the one he pitched Sunday night when he helped the Phils complete a three-game Division Series sweep of the Cincinnati Reds with a 2-0 victory at Great American Ball Park.
Hamels pitched a brilliant, five-hit shutout, walked none and struck out nine. For nine innings, his fastball crackled with electricity. He complemented the pitch with a sharp cutter and his typical dizzying changeup. He finished the game by striking out one-time Phillie Scott Rolen – how’s that for a symbol of how far this franchise has come? – on a 95-mph fastball.
“From the first pitch of the game until the last, Cole never changed his approach,” said Brad Lidge, who limbered up in the bullpen just in case Hamels’ needed an assist in the ninth. “He was like a machine the whole game.” Hamels allowed a leadoff single in the ninth and the huge Cincinnati crowd began to stir as Joey Votto, an NL MVP candidate and one of the league’s most feared hitters came to the plate. Votto finished third in the league in homers (37) and RBIs (113) so he was more than capable of tying the game with one swing. On a 1-2 count Hamels threw one of his best pitches of the night – a gutsy changeup – and Votto grounded it to second baseman Chase Utley, who started a 4-6-3 double play.
A year ago, Hamels would never have smelled the finish line in a game like this, never mind completed it with clutch pitching. October 2009 was vastly different than October 2008 for Hamels. He never got out of the sixth inning in four postseason starts last year and had a 7.58 ERA. After the October 2009 debacle, Hamels spent the winter conditioning his body, his mind and his pitching arsenal. He posted a career-best 3.06 ERA in 33 starts this season and was an October difference-maker once again Sunday.
“Cole has grown up since last year,” teammate Jimmy Rollins said. “He got his feet under him. He got his mind in the right place. He’s had a good guy to follow in leading this staff.” That guy, of course, is Roy Halladay. With Halladay bearing the difficult assignment of being the ace of the staff on a team with huge expectations, Hamels has simply been able to pitch rather than having to lead.
Halladay and Hamels were both brilliant in this series as the Phils confirmed the age-old truism that good pitching can stop good hitting. The Reds, who led the NL in batting average, runs and home runs, were shut out twice in the series. Halladay stopped them with a no-hitter in Game 1 and Hamels held them scoreless in Game 3. Roy Oswalt struggled in Game 2, but the Phils’ bullpen pitched four shutout innings, keeping the team alive until the Reds gave that game away with poor defense.
“I think when you look at [the series], it was definitely our pitching,” manager Charlie Manuel said.
“We had our Big 3 and they did their Big 3 thing,” said Rollins, referring to Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels. “Our pitching put up some serious numbers.” The Phillies pitching staff allowed just four runs in the three games, leading Reds manager Dusty Baker to compare it to one of the greatest staffs ever, that of the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1970s.
“You know, pitching is the key, and they threw three excellent pitchers against us,” Baker said. “We pitched well today, but Hamels pitched better.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow when you work hard from spring training to get to this point. They’re a very good club. They’re going to be tough to beat, especially when they’re throwing pitching like that at you.”
The Phils did not tear the cover off the ball in the series. They scored 13 runs, but six were unearned as the Reds played dreadful defense. The Phils’ first run Sunday night scored as a result of an error by Reds’ shortstop Orlando Cabrera. The Phils’ second run came on Utley’s 10th postseason home run, a solo shot of Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto. That was all Hamels needed in improving to 7-0 with an 0.90 ERA in eight career starts against the Reds.
“His fastball was great the whole game,” Ruiz said. “He threw a lot of fastballs inside to right-handed hitters and that opened up the outside part of the plate for his changeup and off-speed stuff.” In a tight game, Hamels had to make clutch pitches. The changeup to Votto in the ninth was just one of them. Two innings earlier, Hamels allowed a two-out double Ramon Hernandez, bringing up dangerous Jay Bruce. Hamels threw Bruce a cutter for a ball, a changeup for a strike and finished the at-bat with a fastball that Bruce lined to RF Jayson Werth.
Hamels has made 11 postseason starts in his career and the Phils are 8-3 in those games. His latest was his best-ever and that’s saying something considering the hardware he collected in October ’08. But Hamels and the Phillies remain focused. There’s more baseball to play. The Phils host Game 1 of the NLCS Saturday night against either Atlanta or San Francisco.
“This moment right here is just a stepping stone toward trying to win the World Series,” Hamels said. This veteran ballclub understand that they can celebrate now, but still have to win two more series before they can be champions for the second time in three years
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org