10/10/08 12:40 AM ET
Phillies match pitching with power
Hurlers keep game close until thunder arrives vs. Dodgers
The combination of sudden-impact power and solid pitching is tough to beat. And in October, it can make for classic baseball.
It was exactly that way Thursday night in the opener of the National League Championship Series. The Phillies had all the right components for a Game 1 victory and instant excitement. It was a 3-2, certifiable October thriller.
A Citizens Bank Park capacity crowd of 45,839 went from boisterous at the beginning to relatively quiet over most of the first five innings to a frenzy of pro-Phillies joy that started in the bottom of the sixth and hasn't stopped since.
The Phillies spent the first five innings largely unable to even get the ball into the air against Dodgers starter Derek Lowe. With Lowe's power sinker and slider working, the Phillies had 11 ground-ball outs in those five innings. After his winning performance in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Cubs, it looked like Lowe was on his way to a dominant postseason run.
It all changed within a heartbeat in the sixth inning. The Phillies can do that to the opposition. With the Dodgers leading, 2-0, an uncomplicated grounder to short turned into a two-base error as Rafael Furcal rushed his throw in an attempt to beat the speedy Shane Victorino.
On the very next pitch, Chase Utley hit a two-run homer. One out later, Pat Burrell hit a solo home run. It was as though the first five innings had never existed. Within a baseball blink of an eye, what had been a dominant performance by Lowe turned into a Philadelphia lead. Within another three innings, that 3-2 lead turned into a 1-0 Philadelphia lead in the series.
The Phils' offense was suitably explosive. The two-homer sixth was suitably sudden. But all of that wouldn't have meant that much without superior pitching performances by starter Cole Hamels, reliever Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge.
Hamels, encoring from a dominant performance against Milwaukee in a Division Series opener, was more than good enough again -- seven innings, two runs, six hits, two walks, eight strikeouts. It was a performance that was both gutsy and effective, because Hamels was down a run three batters into the game.
"He kept us right there," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "What he did, he stayed right there and kept them at bay. And he ended up pitching very good."
Hamels, when asked if he was becoming a "big-game pitcher," smiled and responded: "I hope so." He doesn't need to campaign for this status. His work is speaking for itself.
One key for Hamels is that he knows that if he can keep the game close, the Philadelphia offense can take care of the rest.
"The way the team's been playing, I've had the confidence in them and knowing that even if I do put them down early, we'll come back just because of the fight that we have. And we've shown it throughout the last month of September and we're showing it in October. And that's what I think everybody is growing accustomed to and liking about us."
"Liking" was probably an understatement, given the home crowd's reaction to this Game 1 performance. But beyond the hitters and the audience, there is the pitching.
The Phillies led the National League in home runs, but this year, they were fourth in team ERA and they led the league in bullpen ERA.
The pitching numbers are the recent development and there is nothing of the fluke about them. On Thursday night, the Phillies had Hamels, an emerging ace, going for seven, then Madson, who has been lights-out in a setup role, for the eighth and then Lidge for the ninth. Including the postseason, Lidge is 44-for-44 in save opportunities, perfection itself. The Phillies, when they had a lead after eight innings, were 79-0 in the regular season. A something-more-than-subtle trend has emerged.
The other element that makes the Phillies' pitching performance even more impressive is that Citizens Bank Park is hitter-friendly and then some.
"It's a huge challenge; when you're pitching in this day and age, it's all about the home runs," Hamels said. "So bats are a little bit harder, balls are a little bit harder, the fences are a little bit shorter. To be a pitcher, you really have to grind and be mentally tough.
"So playing here, I think if you're able to succeed here, you can pitch anywhere."
That's the deal with the 2008 Phillies. They still have the instantaneous, game-changing power. But now, they can pitch anywhere. And any time, too, including the NLCS.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.