An hour after Cole Hamels put the finishing touches on his latest masterpiece, weathering stifling heat to pitch eight dominant innings in a 2-0 victory over his latest victim, somebody reminded him of the last time he had faced the Dodgers.
"Yeah," Hamels said in a sarcastic tone. "I love that game."
That game was Game 5 of the 2009 National League Championship Series. The Phillies clinched their second straight World Series berth that night, but Hamels watched the majority of it from the sidelines, having been yanked by Charlie Manuel with one out in the fifth inning after allowing his third home run of the game. One year earlier, he had dominated the Dodgers and pitched the Phillies to their first World Series in 15 years, claiming NLCS MVP honors in the process. But in 2009, he could not even make it into the sixth inning.
His arm was weak. His stuff was flat. And one start later – another stinker, this one to the Yankees – his season was over.
"I don't even know how I did so well back then," Hamels said. "Seriously. Being able to throw four pitches is a lot easier than two."
All four of those pitches were on display last night. Not only the fastball that sat at 92 miles an hour or the change-up that prompted 10 swinging strikes, but the curveball he was once afraid to throw (last night he threw 10 of 12 for strikes), and the cutter that has developed into a crucial weapon. He needed all of them to produce his finest moment, a Houdini-esque escape from a potentially-mortal jam that developed in the seventh when Andre Ethier led off with a double and then moved to third on a single by fellow star Matt Kemp. The Phillies had just taken a 1-0 lead on Ryan Howard's 13th home run of the season, and the Dodgers suddenly had three outs and 90 feet to eliminate it.
What happened next depends on the narrative to which you subscribe. The popular one will chronicle the latest chapter in a coming-of-age story, one in which the protagonist continues to shed the immaturity of his youth while walking his path toward self-actualization. It is a credible tale, one that Hamels himself will not dispute. When he was he was a young player, he acted like a young player, as the scripture might say. Yet to focus on his internal metamorphosis is to ignore the vast physical difference between the man who took the mound last night and the one who walked dejectedly off of it two Octobers ago. After all, it's a hell of a lot easier to maintain your ch'i when you're carrying ace-level stuff with each trip to the mound.
Maybe two years ago, Hamels would have gotten rattled. Maybe the pitcher who had carried the Phillies to their first world title in 28 years was less wise beyond his years and more too young to know any better. Maybe in 2009 he would have let the tying run on third base dominate his focus.
Or maybe he was simply less of a complete pitcher then he is now. Maybe he did not have the level of experience to know that Juan Uribe would be sitting first-pitch fastball, hoping for something he could put into play and push the tying run home. Maybe he would not have thrown a change-up away, prompting a pop-up for the first out of the seventh.
He definitely would not have sequenced Marcus Thames as he did, following a cutter with a fastball with a curveball with back-to-back change-ups that prompted a swinging strikeout for the pivotal second out of the frame. And he definitely would not have thrown Rod Barajas a curveball on a 2-0 count, prompting a swing and miss that gave him more than enough leeway to throw the change-up that the Dodgers catcher popped into the air for the final out of the frame.
"I'm completely different now," Hamels said.
These are the games that pitchers like Hamels live for, games where the man on the mound is the only barrier between victory and defeat, games in 90-degree heat that leave you feeling like a used wash rag. It's a good feeling when you are pitching eight scoreless innings, as Hamels did, and striking out nine, as Hamels did, and allowing just one extra base hit, as Hamels did.
The Phillies have won five games when they score fewer than three runs. Hamels has been on the mound for three of them. In two of his other victories, the Phillies have managed just three runs.
If you go by numbers like record (8-2) and ERA (2.53), the best of the Big Four has not been Roy Halladay, or Cliff Lee, or Roy Oswalt. It has been the man who follows all of them in the rotation. Strong will or strong stuff, that's something to love.