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October 2, 2008

On the Beat

Game One Report, Brewers versus Phillies

by John Perrotto

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PHILADELPHIA—It is hard to imagine Cole Hamels being anything but cool. The Phillies left-hander with blond streaks in his black hair grew up in Rancho Bernardo, California, a suburb of San Diego, and his perfect day when he was single was to sleep until noon, go to Del Mar Beach, play volleyball, surf on a body board, and cook out. Now that's cool.

In 2004, when Hamels was playing in High-A for Clearwater in Florida, former Survivor star and Playboy cover girl Heidi Strobel was making a promotional appearance at the ballpark. Hamels asked her out, she agreed, and two years later they were married. That, too, is cool.

In spring training, Hamels said his goal for this season was winning the National League Cy Young and his career goal was to wind up in the Hall of Fame. It takes a certain amount of coolness to openly talk about being inducted in Cooperstown when you are just 24 years old.

Yet Hamels was anything but cool when he made the first post-season start of his career last year, as the Phillies were swept by the Rockies in the National League Division Series. He felt out of sync throughout a 6 2/3-inning stint, and took the loss as he allowed three runs and three hits with four walks and seven strikeouts. "I learned a lot from that start and having that experience was invaluable," Hamels said. "I told myself the next time I was in that position that I would have a much different approach, and I wouldn't make the same mistakes twice."

Hamels only had to wait a year to get that second chance, and he made the most of it yesterday afternoon as he pitched eight shutout innings to lead the Phillies to a 3-1 win over the Brewers in Game One of the NLDS at Citizens Bank Park. He allowed two hits—singles by Corey Hart in the fifth inning and Craig Counsell in the sixth—never let a runner get past second base, walked only one, and struck out nine, all against a Brewers lineup that hit lefties at a .269/.348/.458 clip in the regular season. "We didn't even hit any balls hard off of him," Brewers interim manager Dale Sveum said, the admiration nearly dripping from his voice.

It was because Hamels stayed cool. "I tried to take the adrenaline that is naturally flowing in a situation like that and use it to my advantage this time," Hamels said. "I know the hitters are coming up to the plate a little anxious because it's first game of the series. I've learned to mellow out, take the energy of the crowd, and stay focused on going about my business. It definitely worked for me. I was able to stay relaxed and in a good rhythm all day."

Brad Lidge followed to close out the game, and survived a harrowing 36-pitch ninth inning to get the save but lose the shutout. He thought for the longest time that he would never leave the lower portion of Citizen Bank Park's bi-level bullpen on this day—Hamels was in such control that he appeared on his way to a complete game. "That was so much fun to watch," Lidge said. "Cole was so dominant and so poised. The Brewers have a great-hitting team and it seemed like he was almost toying with them at times. He really set the tone in this game with the way he pitched. Hopefully, he set the tone for the whole series. I can't imagine anybody pitching better than Cole pitched today."

Perhaps CC Sabathia will when he takes the mound for the Brewers in Game Two tonight against Brett Myers. The big left-hander has been nothing but the best pitcher on the planet since the Brewers traded a package of four prospects to the Indians for him July 7.

However, while the spotlight will clearly be on Sabathia leading up to the start of this series, Hamels proved to be every bit the star in Game One. The rail-thin Hamels has been one of the best pitchers in the game during his first two full seasons in the major leagues. Last year, he was 36th in the majors with 5.2 SNVLAR and he moved up to fifth this season by raising that figure to 7.1. The biggest knock on Hamels since the Phillies drafted him in the first round in 2002 following his senior year of high school was durability. He pitched just a combined 151 innings in his first three professional seasons. However, Hamels was second in the NL with 227 innings pitched this season, and says chiropractic care and good eating habits have helped solve chronic back woes, which in turn has allowed him to clean up his delivery and take stress off of his arm.

"He's gone to the post for us all year and he's been our ace," said Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, whose two-run double keyed a three-run third inning against Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, who only got through four innings in his second start since May 1, as he pitched just 24 1/3 innings in the regular season because of two knee surgeries.

"I think the only reason people don't talk about Cole in terms of being one of the best pitchers in the league is that he doesn't have a lot of time in the big leagues yet," Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said. "People are still finding out about him and don't quite understand how good he is yet. Everyone saw today, though, just how good he is."

Hamels, true to his cool nature, didn't seem to be all that impressed. When asked if it was the best game he ever pitched in a major-league uniform, he hesitated and didn't give a direct answer. "Yes and no," he said. "I do know that I'm capable of pitching like this. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to do it a few more times this October."

Left-hander Jamie Moyer, the elder statesmen of the Phillies' starting rotation at age 45, certainly looks forward to that happening. "I think we all watched Cole grow up before our eyes today," said Moyer, who made his major league debut in 1986, when Hamels was two years old. "It's been fun to watch him mature as a pitcher this year. However, it's a totally different stage in October, and it's hard to pitch better in a playoff game than he did. This is only going to help make him better. It's just going to make him that much more confident when he takes the mound the next time."

Hamels shut the Brewers down on a day when the Phillies didn't give him much run support. The double by Utley that center fielder Mike Cameron failed to make a back-handed catch on as the winds swirled in advance of a predicted thunderstorm that somehow bypassed Citizens Bank Park, and a bases-loaded walk to Shane Victorino later in the third, accounted for all the Phillies' scoring. While Gallardo struggled after retiring the Phillies in order in the first two innings, Brewers relievers Mitch Stetter, Carlos Villanueva, Manny Parra, and Guillermo Mota combined for four shutout innings.

"The impressive part of Cole's outing is we didn't give him a whole lot of margin for error," Howard said. Hamels did not need much margin and seemed to be cruising to a shutout, when Phillies manager Charlie Manuel lifted him after eight innings and 101 pitches in favor of Lidge, who converted all 41 save opportunities in the regular season. Hamels had exceeded 101 pitchers in each of his last six regular-season starts, and 19 of 32 overall this season.

Manuel thought about sending Hamels out to start the ninth until Howard, of all people, indirectly changed his mind. "Howard asked me if I would go to Lidge if anyone got on base in the ninth and that got me thinking that I should just go with Lidge to start the inning," Manuel said. "He's our closer. That's why he's standing out there. He's been perfect all year."

Though he wound up striking out the side, Lidge was imperfect this time. Ray Durham scored the Brewers' lone run from first base when Utley dropped right fielder Jayson Werth's relay throw on Ryan Braun's double into the corner with one out. The Brewers eventually put runners on second and third with two outs before Lidge struck out Hart to end it. "I'm not the type of pitcher who has low-pitch innings by nature," Lidge said. "In fact, it seems like this year that the adrenaline doesn't even start flowing for me until a runner reached third base. Then, I kind of kick it in gear and get the last out."

Lidge did, but not before most of the 45,929 in attendance were having trouble breathing. "I think I'll need to buy enough Advil or Bayer, or whatever helps the heart, for the entire city of Philadelphia after this one," Lidge said with a smile.

Lidge and his teammates could laugh. After being swept by the Rockies last year, the Phillies won their first post-season game since 1993 while spoiling the Brewers' first post-season game since 1982. "Last year was tough because we never got a taste of winning even one game in the playoffs," Moyer said. "This is a big, big step for us to win Game One, and we can give thanks to Cole Hamels for that."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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