By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 1 -- The first pitch of the 2008 postseason departed the left hand of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels at 3:07 p.m. on a cool, gray Wednesday -- a fastball, outside, ball one. It would be the last time the Milwaukee Brewers held any sort of advantage over Hamels, and the last time during his brilliant 101-pitch performance that most in the crowd of 45,929 at Citizens Bank Park would feel the need to deploy the "Fightin' Phils" rally towels handed to them on the way in.
It was only in the ninth inning, following Hamels's departure, that everything began to change. In came closer Brad Lidge -- the Brewers perhaps never before so happy to see a right-hander with upper-90s heat and the filthiest slider in the National League -- and moments later, out came the towels, now soggy from the light rain and whipping wildly in the grips of a bunch of nervous hands.
By the time Lidge blew a fastball past a helpless Corey Hart for the 27th out, preserving the Phillies' 3-1 win in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, the would-be tying runs were in scoring position, and the NL East champion Phillies had gone from an easy afternoon spent marveling at their young lefty's amazing gifts to an anxious evening of fretting over their veteran closer's penchant for drama.
"I told [Lidge] on the mound, 'You know, it's okay to go 1-2-3 every once in a while,' " joked Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "He said, 'I've never been that type of guy my whole career.' I said, 'It's never too late to start.' "
Despite the angst created by Lidge's harrowing 35-pitch ninth inning, the Game 1 victory was welcomed around here all the same, both because of the memories of the recent past -- namely a three-game sweep at the hands of the Colorado Rockies a year ago after the Phillies made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years -- and what awaits them, namely CC Sabathia, the Brewers' indefatigable ace who will start Thursday night's Game 2 on three days' rest for the fourth straight time.
"Especially with CC out there tomorrow," said Ryan Howard, the Phillies' slugging first baseman, "we needed this one."
As Hamels departed the mound Wednesday following the top of the eighth inning, having just set down the bottom third of the Brewers' lineup in order, the wild-card team from the NL Central was a lifeless bunch. Hamels had retired the first 14 batters he faced, as well as the final eight. In between were a mere three base runners -- two singles and a walk -- and a lot of flailing at Hamels's tantalizing change-ups.
"That's vintage Cole," said Jamie Moyer, the Phillies' 45-year-old lefty and a mentor of sorts to Hamels. Between innings Wednesday, they sat together on the bench and talked, though apparently Moyer did not feel compelled to offer advice. "At that point, what am I going to tell the guy? He's throwing well. He should be [advising] me."
The 3-0 lead Hamels enjoyed for much of the afternoon came largely through the unintended generosity of the Brewers' defense, which botched two critical plays in the Phillies' three-run third inning. Hamels's sacrifice bunt, which followed catcher Carlos Ruiz's leadoff single off Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, became an adventure when third baseman Bill Hall -- anticipating a play at second to force Ruiz -- bobbled the ball, then settled for the out at first base, only to see his throw bounce out of the glove of second baseman Richie Weeks, who was covering the bag. Everyone safe.
Two batters later, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley hit a liner to straightaway center, which Milwaukee's Mike Cameron -- normally one of the better defensive center fielders in the game -- initially misjudged, then recovered only to have the ball deflect off his glove for a two-run double.
"I thought I had it," Cameron said. "It was a tough play because . . . the wind was doing God-knows-what out there. It just kind of took off a little bit."
With Hamels dominating the Brewers, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel faced only one strategic decision of any import -- whether to send his starter back to the mound for the ninth. "It crossed my mind," Manuel acknowledged. "[But] he's pitched a lot this year, [and] we've got [Lidge] down there. That's what he's standing down there for. . . . The inning was pretty much set up for him."
Lidge was a perfect 41 for 41 in save situations this season, but finds himself cleaning up his own messes far more frequently than those of others. His ninth inning Wednesday included a single, a double, a wild pitch, a walk and a harrowing duel against Brewers slugger Prince Fielder, who eventually whiffed on a 3-2 fastball.
"I'm going to have to buy everyone some Pepto -- you know, to cure their heartburn," Lidge joked afterward. Everyone within earshot laughed, and Lidge grinned evilly, another trip to the edge of disaster having ended with the good guys still alive.