Baseball playoffs: Phillies boast three aces in Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 12:32 AM

PHILADELPHIA - For the better part of a decade, they traveled in concentric orbits, two brilliant satellites circling the same moon, but rarely crossing paths. Then suddenly, a little more than two months ago, fate - plus a lot of money and effort - brought Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt together. That their collision occurred here was a boon for both of them, but even more so for the Philadelphia Phillies.

On Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park, Halladay will open the Phillies' defense of their 2008 and 2009 National League pennants, facing the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the Division Series. Two nights later, Oswalt will take the mound in Game 2.

Neither was a part of the 2008 Phillies squad that won the World Series, nor the 2009 team that lost the World Series to the New York Yankees. But more than any other factors, it was the bold acquisitions of Halladay, last December, and Oswalt, at the July trade deadline, that have fed the perception that the Phillies are the clear team to beat in the 2010 postseason - and perhaps the best Phillies team yet.

With lefty Cole Hamels - the ace of their 2008 title team - set to start in Game 3 at Cincinnati on Sunday, the Phillies boast not only the best three-deep rotation in the postseason field, but arguably the best any playoff team has deployed in years. To take down the Phillies this month, someone is going to have to beat Halladay, Oswalt or Hamels - a trio that has combined to go 13-1 with a 2.16 ERA since Sept. 1.

"Since we got Roy Oswalt," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said, comparing this year's pitching staff to his last few, "this year's kind of stands out a little bit more than any I've had here."

Having three aces, of course, does not guarantee a team a title, or else the Atlanta Braves - who built a regular-season dynasty out of their Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz triumvirate in the 1990s - would have won more than one World Series championship during that run.

But as the Phillies attempt to become the first team to win three straight NL pennants since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals, there is a unique type of confidence that comes from knowing that, in any given game, your starting pitcher is better than the other guy.

"That's a very good thing," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "I've felt that way quite a few times this season."

The rest of this Phillies team is not appreciably different from its predecessors. Their lineup, which is once again whole after a piecemeal summer of injuries and inexplicable slumps, is essentially the same one that fueled the 2009 pennant run, with the exception of third base, where Placido Polanco, an offensive upgrade, has replaced Pedro Feliz. The back end of the bullpen, with closer Brad Lidge flanked by set-up men Ryan Madson from the right side and J.C. Romero from the left, is virtually unchanged.

Only the Phillies' rotation has changed dramatically from a year ago - with Cliff Lee, the October 2009 ace, now fronting the Texas Rangers' rotation, and with Jamie Moyer injured and Pedro Martinez enjoying retirement.

Halladay, who cost the Phillies three prospects and a three-year, $60 million contract extension, has been all they could have hoped for, leading the league in wins (21), innings pitched (2502/3) and complete games (9), and raising the bar for dedication to conditioning within the clubhouse with his tireless between-starts routine.

"He's always working," Manuel said. "You never see him at his locker."

The Phillies, too, have been all Halladay could have hoped for - validating his decision to waive his no-trade rights in Toronto and approve the deal. Now, having made it to the playoffs for the first time in his career at the age of 33, he is telling himself to stop and enjoy it - in essence, to go against his head-down, straight-ahead nature.

"You work all offseason [and] all season to get to this point - you don't want to go through it and miss something," he said. "It's something I've wanted to do my whole career, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity."

Even with Halladay on board, by July it was becoming clear in Philadelphia that Halladay wasn't enough. The Phillies were as much as seven games behind the Atlanta Braves in late July, and they were still 3½ games back when the Oswalt deal was finalized. By early September, they had passed the Braves for good, on their way to winning the East by six games with a 49-19 finishing kick.

"We took off," Manuel said, "and [the Oswalt trade] is what gave us the push."

The Phillies have paid a high cost for their largess. It cost them six younger players - three in each trade - to haul in Halladay and Oswalt (although the cost in young talent was mitigated somewhat by the December 2009 trade that sent Cliff Lee to Seattle), plus roughly $90 million in salary commitments to the two pitchers.

Halladay and Oswalt, the former toiling above the border and below the radar in Toronto, the latter getting an occasional taste of the postseason in Houston, were two of baseball's best pitchers of the 2000s, with Halladay winning a Cy Young Award in 2003 and Oswalt finishing in the top five in voting five times. But they knew each other only superficially, mostly through mutual friends.

"Definitely watched him a lot. Definitely a guy that I like the style and the way he pitched," Halladay said. "He was quick, he was aggressive, he challenged guys."

On Wednesday night, Halladay will climb the mound on a field where the Phillies are 12-3 the past two postseasons, and in doing so will both fulfill a lifelong dream and keep alive a mini-dynasty.

Asked how hungry Halladay is for a championship, Manuel said: "I think he's starving. He's intense, and he wants it. I mean, he wants it. He wants a ring."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company