Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reds get a lump of Cole

It wasn't that long ago when the Phillies experienced the hurt they just put on the Cincinnati Reds in the Division Series.

It was 2007 and a fairly young Philly team made a surprise trip to the postseason for the first time in more than a decade. Leading the way was experienced manager Charlie Manuel, who was in the third season of a job that finally paid the dividends the higher-ups were hoping for. Just as quickly as the Phillies realized their dream, it was snatched away by a three-game sweep.
Since then, Philadelphia has done nothing but win in the playoffs, and it showed an untested Cincinnati team and its veteran manager how it's done.

Twenty-six-year-old Cole Hamels locked up his team's third consecutive trip to the National League Championship Series with a pitching performance on Sunday that arguably exceeded any of his stellar starts during the 2008 postseason. He allowed just five hits and struck out nine in a 2-0 win. Hamels threw the second complete-game shutout for the "Big Three" in the series, proving that even if two of the three are dominating, the Phillies are still unbeatable.

Hamels often found himself on the wrong side of these kind of games during the regular season, but the October Phillies are a different breed from the first-half Phillies. They come up big when it matters the most. Shane Victorino made a game-saving grab, Chase Utley hit his 10th career postseason home run and Hamels took care of the rest.

The crafty left-hander said after the game that his overwhelming success at the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark - he's now 7-0 there - could be partially attributed to that fact that it was the site of his first big league start back in 2006. The Reds have improved a great deal since then, but they ran into an even more refined Hamels. The perfection of his cut fastball in the latter half of this season added a new weapon to set up his deadly changeup, which had Cincinnait's right-handers hitters fooled all night.

As good as their pitching has been, the Phillies would be the first ones to admit that they're still not firing on all cylinders. Nearly half of their 13 runs scored over the three games were provided by the opposition. The shallow dimensions of Great American were barely enough to take Utley's homer, the first long ball of the postseason for Philadelphia. The team knows it can hit much better than this, and a better outing from Roy Oswalt also wouldn't hurt. His first playoff start in five years turned out like his first start as a Phillie, but he went 7-0 after July 30 so a better outing in the NLCS is very likely.

The players in Philly know to ignore all the great hype surrounding them, but thus far they're on track to prove the prognosticators correct. The Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants - two other teams that have returned to the playoffs after long absences - are in the midst of an uncomfortable battle, and whichever group advances, they know the road only gets harder against a dangerous Phillies team that's now won six of its last seven series on the big stage.

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