IN PREVIOUS incarnations of himself, Cole Hamels might have felt pressed against the ropes, angry at the RBI double he had allowed to Brian McCann, frustrated with the Matt Diaz single that had found a hole in the infield. It was the second inning of his most important start of the season and the Phillies were already in a one-run hole that seemed destined to grow. With no outs and runners on the corners, there were two different directions in which the night could turn.
Two hours later, Hamels stood amid a throng of media and calmly recounted the sequence of events that led to his escape from that second-inning jam. First came a strikeout of Alex Gonzalez, the Braves shortstop who entered the night hitting .291 with 21 RBI in his last 30 games. Then came a ground ball from Melky Cabrera that Chase Utley gobbled up at second base, starting a 4-6-3 doubleplay that ended the inning.
It proved to be an early climax in a 3-1 victory.
"Because," Hamels said after the Phillies beat the Braves to move their National League East lead to four games with 11 to play, "every run that's going to be scored in these games is going to be huge."
For that reason, the Phillies are thrilled with their chances of putting an early stranglehold on a division lead that 2 months ago they trailed by seven games. Last night, Hamels and his defense guarded each run with the same zeal that has characterized this recent run of success for the Phillies.
After wiggling out of that second-inning jam, Hamels retired 18 of the final 21 batters he faced, finishing the night with one run on six hits, and one walk in eight innings of work. Six days after throwing a career-high 127 pitches in a 13-strikeout effort against the Marlins, he struck out six on 117 pitches and then watched Brad Lidge strike out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth.
Since the Astros swept them in four games at Citizens Bank Park in late August, the Phillies have won 20 of 24, including eight straight and 16 of 19 in September.
During that stretch, Hamels has won all five of his starts, allowing just two earned runs in 36 2/3 innings with 37 strikeouts and seven walks.
"I think just making the right pitches at the right times, staying down in the zone, knowing when to go up in the zone," said Hamels, who is now 12-10 with a 2.93 ERA. "I think it's just keeping them off-balance. I've had a couple games where I've kind of been able to narrow my focus and make pitches and not make mistakes."
With righthander Roy Halladay on the mound tonight and fellow veteran Roy Oswalt following him tomorrow, the Phillies have a chance at a three-game sweep that would give them a six-game lead with nine to play.
Since Sept. 1, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt have combined to go 11-0 with a 2.09 ERA in 11 starts.
"This is amazing to watch. I've been able to be on a team with Roy [Oswalt], Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and that was pretty impressive," said Lidge, who has converted 24 of 29 save opportunities with a 3.32 ERA this season, "but these guys are all in their prime right now, and these guys are amazing to watch."
The Braves are sending a drastically different rotation out to the mound. While Hamels, Halladay and Oswalt have combined to pitch in 28 big-league seasons, Atlanta's three starters have combined to pitch in fewer than four. A knee injury to scheduled starter Jair Jurrjens forced Atlanta to call on 23-year-old righthander Brandon Beachy for his first major league start last night.
Beachy didn't pitch poorly, but the Phillies took advantage of their opportunities. In the second, Carlos Ruiz hit a clutch two-out double to tie the score at 1-1.
But the key play came in the fifth, when a line drive from Shane Victorino bounced off Jason Heyward's glove in rightfield, turning what looked to be an out into a three-base error. After Victorino scored on a groundout by Placido Polanco, Chase Utley singled, stole second, and advanced to third on a throwing error by McCann.
Utley would later score, giving Hamels and Lidge all the cushion they would need.
"I'll be comfortable when we have a four-[game] lead with three to play," manager Charlie Manuel said.
They're on their way.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese. Follow him on Twitter at