SAN FRANCISCO - Welcome to Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, between your Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants. Pitching for the defending NL champions this afternoon at AT & T Park will be lefthander Cole Hamels, who . . .

Oh, yeah, all right. Technically, this isn't the first game. It's the third. But after the teams split at The Bank, the slate has been effectively wiped clean. Hit the reset button and start all over again as a best-of-five series for the right to advance to the World Series.

Hamels has said he didn't mind being slotted as the No. 3 starter behind Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt going into the postseason. Maybe he even meant it. But you don't get to be be an All-Star or an NLCS and World Series MVP without having some ego.

So while he dismissed today's matchup against Giants righthander Matt Cain as "just another game," that's simply not true. And he sort of admitted it.

"Postseason is where it's at," the 26-year-old said at another point during his media availability. "It's the ultimate time to really show what kind of player you are, the type of pitcher you are, and really to enjoy the type of moment. Because not too many guys will get to experience this."

Not to mention that in the shrunken parameters that both teams are dealing with, today's winner will have the inside track to advance.

The way it's worked out, the Phillies have to be pretty happy that they can send a pitcher of Hamels' considerable capabilities to the mound at this point.

It wasn't that way a year ago, of course. While the Phillies were working their way through a postseason draw that ended with a disappointing loss to the Yankees, a lot of outside disgruntlement was tossed his way. The fact that he might be suffering a hangover from all the innings he pitched in 2008. The injuries. The lack of run support: three or fewer runs in 15 of his 32 starts. The perceived unwillingness or inability to throw anything other than a fastball or changeup. It all piled up, topped off by a misconstrued remark during the World Series about being anxious for the season to be over.

That all seems so long ago and far away. Everybody agrees that he's stronger now, mentally and physically, a process that might have been hastened by the addition of Roy Halladay. He's stayed healthy. He's throwing both a curve and cutter to good effect.

About the only thing that hasn't changed is lack of run support - three or fewer runs in 18 of 33 starts - but if that bothers him, he has kept it to himself.

Charlie Manuel thinks all of the above has converged to make Hamels so effective this year. His 3.06 earned run average was a career low. In his Division Series start against the Reds he pitched a complete-game shutout.

And the manager conceded that while he always thought the slender lefthander needed another arrow or two in his quiver, he didn't push the point.

"He's got more of an arsenal, more equipment, whatever you want to call it," Manuel said. "I used to tell him after a game to throw more breaking balls, but I was never very strong about it, didn't insist on it. Because he was good with his changeup and fastball. I looked at it in some ways like, 'Why would I want to mess with him and change him and things like that? Here's a guy pitching lights-out with two pitches.' But somewhere along the line it got out of whack and everyone started figuring out what was wrong with him."

Hamels said watching how effectively Cliff Lee used his cutter last year opened his eyes. "I felt it could be a very good pitch for me to add, especially since it goes the other direction as a changeup," he said.

But deciding to do it and actually incorporating it didn't come without a learning curve. "It's a pitch that you have to throw," he said. "Even if you're not comfortable with it or confident with it, you have to throw it in order to be able to learn and master it. There's never a time or place that's going to be the right time. You have to eventually make it.

"If you're able to go out there time and time again and work through it, it will eventually come. You don't have the [luxury] of the minor leagues where you can work on something for a whole year or 2 and not get results. In the big leagues you have to be a little bit quicker, you really have to worry about the results."

Hamels said he has learned a lot over the last couple of years. That baseball is a tough game. That those who succeed are the ones who make adjustments and always strive to get better. That he has improved his conditioning and that he is stronger mentally. That he is comfortable with four pitches. And that all of that leads to one thing:

"Once you do that, you gain back your confidence," he said. "In this game, confidence can go a lot further than talent. [And] I've gained a lot more confidence in myself."

Just what any team wants in its Game 1 starter.

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