Wednesday October 1st, 2008

At times he seems a little too SoCal cool for the cruel city that once booed Santa Claus, but in Game 1 of the Brewers-Phillies National League Division Series, Cole Hamels, the super-laidback San Diego-native who's married to a reality TV star, showed why he is exactly what Philly needs to win its first World Series since 1980. Hamels was brilliant Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, baffling Brewers hitters with his signature weapon, a devastating changeup that was, on this day, "as good as I've seen before," Brewers manager Dale Sveum said after his team's 3-1 loss.

All eyes have been on Milwaukee's CC Sabathia, the Brewers' starter for Game 2, but don't be surprised if it's the Phillies' skinny left-handed ace that has the star-making postseason in the National League. Hamels is the kind of pitcher who can dominate a postseason series; the Phillies may very well ride his changeup and Brad Lidge's slider all the way to the World Series. "Some guys just pitch great in the big October games," Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "Schilling was that way. Jack Morris was that way. For Cole, he hasn't had the opportunities to shine, but this was a great stepping point."

A team built around big offense, the Phillies should be elated they won Game 1 with just one extra-base hit --- Chase Utley's two-run double in the third --- and no highlight-reel swings from Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins or Pat Burrell. Hamels, meanwhile, retired his first 14 hitters, allowed two hits and struck out nine while delivering eight scoreless innings before closer Brad Lidge escaped a ninth-inning jam. "I'll have to get the guys some Pepto," Lidge said with a grin, moments after he struck out Corey Hart with runners on second and third. "I just told myself out there, 'Don't screw up what Cole did.' He was awesome."

Hamels learned the power of the changeup growing up in San Diego, while watching Padres games every night and falling in love with Trevor Hoffman's signature slowball. He mixed that changeup with his low 90s fastball masterfully, but in his second career postseason start, it was his curveball and his poise that were the difference. "He's developed that curveball, which is unusual for a young pitcher, and he used it to keep their hitters on their toes today," said Dubee. "And he controlled his emotions. I thought the key was with two men on [in the sixth inning], he threw a pretty good changeup below the strike zone [to Bill Hall]. In past years, he'd probably try to do too much. Not today."

Entering this series, the Brewers needed one of their pitchers other than CC Sabathia to step up and win a game, and now there's more pressure than ever for The Big Man to deliver. (It's just not a good sign when your GM says "It'll be a smorgasbord," as the Brewers' Doug Melvin did Wednesday, when addressing his pitching options beyond his ace.) It goes without saying that the Brewers are cooked if they lose Thursday night, and while Sabathia has been ridiculous since he arrived in Beer City, he faces a high powered offense ("[The Phillies lineup] is probably like an American League lineup, to be honest with you," Sabathia said on Wednesday) on three days rest and has a history of letting his emotions get the better of him in October. A year ago he was bombed for 12 runs in two starts against the Red Sox in the ALCS, and he has a 7.17 career postseason ERA.

On the eve of his start, Sabathia vowed, "I think you'll see a more calmer version of me. I think last year I went into the playoffs thinking that I had to throw no-hitters and shutouts every game. I think that's why you saw me pressing a lot and throwing a lot of pitches and not throwing a lot of strikes. I think I'll go into this playoffs just trying to keep the team in the game."

Meanwhile, the Phillies' long-term chances this postseason also hinge on their Game 2 starter, Brett Myers. If he's locating his curveball, Myers is a bona fide front-of-the rotation pitcher. Paired with Hamels, the Phillies, for all their talk about their dynamic hitters, could boast one of the most formidable one-two punches atop their rotation among the playoff teams.

Power starting pitching and a stud closer: It was a formula that worked in Game 1 and it's a formula that wins championships.

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