LOS ANGELES - From the late-night television appearances in the offseason to the well-documented MRI in spring training to the nine previous starts he made this season, there is plenty of hard evidence that shows Cole Hamels did, in fact, leave the mound at Dodger Stadium after hurling the Phillies to the National League Championship clincher last October.
It would make for a convincing case in a court of law, but maybe not in the home clubhouse, where a Dodgers lineup that entered the night leading the National League in runs and batting average looked just as lost against Hamels last night as it did last autumn as the Phillies defeated the Dodgers, 3-0, and improved to 32-20.
The ace lefty was ruthlessly efficient in leading the Phillies to their seventh straight win, facing just two more than the minimum number of batters in his nine innings of work.
"To be able to come away with the win and keep this winning streak alive, that was the initial goal," said Hamels.
He allowed just five baserunners, only two of whom reached scoring position, and struck out five while walking none.
"I looked up in the sixth inning and saw he had a low pitch count and thought maybe he had a chance to pitch the ninth and he did," said manager Charlie Manuel. "The way the season has kind of gone for him, I think this was a very big game for him, confidence-wise and everything."
Hamels entered the eighth inning with just 72 pitches and the ninth with just 85, leaving the Phillies' bullpen pitchers to mill around behind the rightfield fence with their warmup jackets on and their hands in their pockets.
Closer Brad Lidge finally started warming up when Matt Kemp hit a bloop single to start the ninth. But Hamels retired the final three Dodgers for his third career shutout.
As impressive as his final line looked - no runs, five hits, no walks and five strikeouts - it still failed to accurately sum up his performance.
He allowed a hit in each of his first three innings, yet escaped each frame with no men on base, thanks to doubleplays in the first and second innings and an ill-advised attempt by opposing starter Clayton Kershaw to stretch a single into a double in the third (Eric Bruntlett, getting his first start in rightfield, gunned him down at second).
By the start of the ninth, he had faced just 25 batters in eight innings, retiring 15 of the previous 16.
The Phillies got all the scoring they would need in the fourth inning, as Chase Utley led off with a double, moved to third on a groundout by Jayson Werth, then scored on a sacrifice fly by Ryan Howard. They would add another run in the sixth on an RBI double by Raul Ibanez and one in the seventh on a single by Werth that scored Carlos Ruiz. But with a vintage Hamels toeing the rubber, the additional scoring simply provided insurance.
"Pitch efficiency is something I've been trying to work on the past couple of weeks," Hamels said.
Last night, he alternated beautifully between his fastball and his changeup, using one to offset the other in combinations throughout the night. Through five innings, he had faced just 15 batters.
His only hint of trouble came in the sixth inning, when Dodgers rightfielder Andre Ethier led off with a double off the rightfield wall that for a moment seemed destined to land in the seats. Instead, Ethier remained standing on second, watching Matt Kemp fly out and Mark Loretta pop out and Juan Pierre ground out to end the frame.
Even from afar, you could sense that Hamels was inhabiting that zone where he resided last October when he held the Dodgers to one run on five hits in seven sparkling innings of the 5-1 win that sent the Phillies to the World Series.
From up close, the sense must have been suffocating.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre obviously felt it with his team trailing 1-0 in the top of the fifth inning, when he employed some strategy usually reserved for the later innings. Pedro Feliz had doubled to lead off the frame, then moved to third on a groundout by Bruntlett. With a 2-0 Phillies lead just a sacrifice fly or a groundout away, Torre chose to intentionally walk Ruiz. As expected, Hamels then sacrificed Ruiz to second, bringing Rollins to the plate with two outs. Rollins flied out to end the inning, but Torre's move was duly noted.
"I think that told you how good they thought he was pitching," Manuel said.
By the end of the night, the Phillies had extended their season-high win streak to seven games and their season-high lead in the National League East to four games.
It wasn't the NLCS.
But Hamels pitched like it.