LOS ANGELES - The last time Cole Hamels pitched in a playoff game at Dodger Stadium, he was midway through the defining month of his young career. Tonight, he hopes to begin another strong October after a challenging year.

On Oct. 15, 2008, Hamels earned his second win of the National League Championship Series, allowing one run in seven innings. He collected most valuable player honors after his team eliminated the Dodgers, and did the same for his sterling performance in the World Series. The Phils' championship last year was a collective effort, of course, but it would not have occurred without Hamels' dominance.

This season, as the Phils won the National League East and an intense division series against the Colorado Rockies, Hamels' role was not nearly as essential. He hopes to reverse that trend in his Game 1 start against another promising young lefthander, Clayton Kershaw.

Pedro Martinez is the likely candidate to start Game 2, with Cliff Lee the probable Game 3 starter.

"I know what I have to do," Hamels said. "I know what I'm capable of doing. . . . If I'm able to go out and execute strikes and really get ahead of them, I can definitely make this a better game for my pitching."

Last October obscured an important truth about Hamels: He was 24 and still had much to learn about baseball and life. In the year since, much has changed.

Events last Thursday presented clear examples of both personal and professional differences from 2008. Starting Game 2 of the division series at Citizens Bank Park, Hamels allowed four runs in five innings - not terrible, far from great. As he has often this year, the pitcher struggled at times to locate his fastball, and allowed a home run off his curveball, his least developed pitch.

He limited damage and occasionally flashed the easy dominance of 2008. But his performance was ultimately more reminiscent of this year's regular season, when Hamels went 10-11 with a 4.32 earned run average.

Since last fall, Hamels has dealt with many changes. Success led to celebrity and distraction.

"When he walks down the street, people either are always reminding him of the World Series, or talking about how he didn't pitch well the other day, or asking for his autograph," his wife, Heidi, told The Inquirer in August. "We made this city our home, and we love it. All this attention is definitely something he hasn't dealt with before."

The most significant alteration in Hamels' personal life also occurred last Thursday. After he left the disappointing playoff start, team staff informed him that Heidi had gone into labor. The pitcher dashed to the hospital and left the team for the rest of the series. His wife gave birth to a son the next day.

"When I'm on the field, I'm all about baseball," he said. "Then . . . after I was done, getting that call, the excitement level starts up. But still, I think you're just more nervous about the situation. You don't know what's going on."

Hamels quickly showered, dressed, and rode to the hospital in a police car. "That was the best cop ride I've ever been a part of, when I wasn't in the back," he said, a reference to his 2005 arrest after a bar fight in Clearwater, Fla.

"I didn't know what to expect, what to think, but it was just the most joyous moment I could be a part of."

Hamels was absent from the Phillies' tense weekend in Denver. Working out at Citizens Bank Park and preparing for a possible Game 5 start, he missed the raucous celebration after his team won. Central to the triumph in 2008, he was temporarily relegated to a footnote this week.

"While Game 4 was on, I was actually working out" at the ballpark, he said. "I wanted to distract myself enough, but also stay involved. What better way than to be at the field?"

Tonight, he has the opportunity to reassert himself as the Phils' postseason ace. Although Hamels' season was disappointing, the talent that drove him in 2008 remains unchanged, and could lead to another postseason success.

One major-league scout called Hamels' change-up one of the three best in baseball, along with those of San Francisco's Tim Lincecum and the New York Mets' Johan Santana. When he can command his low-90s fastball on an outside corner of the strike zone, the two pitches make for a top-notch combination, reminiscent of former Atlanta Braves lefthander Tom Glavine.

On the occasional night when his curveball is sharp, Hamels is one of the best pitchers in baseball. "When he's got those three pitches working, he's unhittable," Dodgers leftfielder Manny Ramirez said yesterday.

Hamels hopes that he can pitch that way more often, and that his inconsistent year was an aberration.

"It has just kind of been a learning season for me," he said. "And I'm definitely going to make sure it doesn't happen again, because that's just not the type of person I want to be to my teammates, and especially to the organization and the fans. I want to be the type of guy who they can count on, and know that I'm there to go out and win every game I possibly can."