ATLANTA - This time around, the temperature was not in the 40s, the wind was not howling, and the boos Cole Hamels heard were not coming from his own crowd.
"He was definitely ready to pitch today," manager Charlie Manuel said.
On a day when the thermometer read 81 degrees at game time, the youngest member of the Phillies' fabled rotation authored a silent monologue on the dangers of opening week overreaction, striking out eight batters in seven scoreless innings of a 3-0 victory over the Braves at Turner Field.
Hamels allowed just five batters to reach base, retiring the first 10 Braves he faced en route to his first win of the season. The performance was hardly unusual: Hamels pitched at least seven scoreless innings in four of his final 16 starts lasts season. But on none of those occasions was he coming off an outing quite as poor as the one he experienced against the Mets last Tuesday in his 2011 debut. On a cold, windy night at Citizens Bank Park, Hamels watched opposing hitters nitpick him apart. He said later he felt like he had decent stuff, but the Mets found a way to put the ball where the defense wasn't, using six singles to score six runs and knock him out of the game with two outs in the third inning.
As Hamels left the mound that night, he did so to a noticeable chorus of boos. It is impossible to say whether the fans were booing a pitcher who was 60-46 with a 3.58 ERA in his career, or whether they were expressing their displeasure with the display the team as a whole forced them to sit through on a miserable evening. Either way, by the end of his performance yesterday, he had reduced the season-opening hiccup to a memory.
"I felt really good last time - things just didn't turn out as well," Hamels said. "[Today] I kept the ball low. This is a good-hitting team and I was able to kind of make them make the mistakes. There were a few times where I wasn't necessarily hitting the spot, but it was down in the zone, so I got the key groundouts and a few good popouts."
The biggest out came in the seventh inning with the tying run on first base. Jason Heyward was standing on third base, having lined a single to rightfield before moving to third on a single by Alex Gonzalez. The Phillies held a 2-0 lead thanks in large part to Shane Victorino, who went first-to-third on a bloop single by Placido Polanco in the fourth inning to put himself in position to score a run, then homered off of Braves starter Derek Lowe in the sixth. But four of the last six batters he had faced reached base, and with his pitch count nearing 100 on a hot afternoon, Hamels was starting to fade. Pitching coach Rich Dubee trotted out to the mound to give his starter a break before trotting back to the dugout and watching him coax Freddie Freeman into a soft inning-ending groundout.
"Going from 40 degrees to almost 90 is definitely a test," Hamels. "I'm glad I kind of had a few days to adjust. Getting the feel I think is the biggest thing. You come from spring training, where you have the feel for the ball, and then you go up to the cold and you don't have as much feel and you kind of have to make those adjustments, and then you come back to hot. Your body feels a little bit more loose, but at the same time you have to learn to kind of reserve your energy so that you can make it longer into the game."
After the seventh, setup man Ryan Madson and closer Jose Contreras made quick work of their second save situation of the season, retiring six of the seven hitters they faced en route to their second hold (for Madson) and save (for Contreras, whose work in relief of the injured Brad Lidge is expected to continue until at least the All-Star break).
The Phillies, meanwhile, continued their torrid start, taking two out of three from the team most experts predict will be their top challenger in the National League East. Last year, the two teams were tied atop the division as late as Sept. 10, but the Phillies won five of six games against the Braves in September to finish with a six-game lead.
Last year, the Phillies started 8-2, then went 40-44 before catching fire to finish with a major-league best 97 wins. One of the keys to their resurgence was the performance of Hamels, who shook off a sluggish April to log 178 innings and a 2.68 ERA in his final 28 starts. Yesterday, he looked very much the same.
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