Hamels Starts, Lidge Finishes, Phillies Strike First: Phillies 3, Rays 2
Thursday, October 23, 2008; Page E01
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., Oct. 22 -- The line of World Series aces for the Philadelphia Phillies passes through Curt Schilling in 1993, through Steve Carlton in 1980 and Robin Roberts in 1950, all the way back to Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1915. The Phillies' is not a glorious history, with one World Series title to show for more than a century's worth of baseball, but when they have made it all the way, the guy standing tallest on the mound was worth seeing.
The fresh-faced heir to that legacy, 24-year-old left-hander Cole Hamels, climbed the mound at Tropicana Field for the bottom of the first inning of the World Series on Wednesday night, and departed 102 pitches later with a dazzling gem that would not have looked out of place around the necks of any of his storied forebears.
A lock-down, shutdown ace may be the greatest postseason weapon of all, and the Phillies own the only true one in this World Series, a fact that made all the difference in their 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1. With his trademark change-up and preternatural cool, Hamels smothered the frenzied atmosphere surrounding the Tampa Bay franchise's first World Series game, silencing a cowbell-ringing crowd of 40,783.
"The poise he has for his age is incredible," Phillies closer Brad Lidge said. "I don't know what makes Cole tick exactly, but he has that factor where the situation doesn't rattle him, and it's like he's just playing catch."
In a series that appears tilted slightly towards the American League champion Rays in almost every area, the two exceptions are Hamels at the front end of the Phillies' rotation and Lidge at the back end of the bullpen. On Wednesday night, they -- along with eighth-inning set-up man Ryan Madson -- were brilliant, limiting a relentless Tampa Bay attack to five hits. Lidge simply overpowered the Rays in the ninth for his sixth save of the postseason, to go with 41 in the regular season, all without a single blown opportunity.
Because the Rays have the deeper rotation, with matchups in their favor over the next three games, Game 1 was crucial for the Phillies, with their ace on the mound. The Rays could afford to lose Game 1, but there was virtually no imaginable route for the Phillies to win the series if Hamels lost Wednesday night.
"Our thought," Lidge said, "was that we've got Cole Hamels on the mound in Game 1, [and] we need to win."
With his tall, lanky frame and over-the-head windup, Hamels is all elbows and knees as he makes his delivery, his trademark change-up materializing out of those joints before disappearing again. His claim on the Schilling-Carlton-Roberts-Alexander legacy can be summed up like this: Four starts this postseason, four wins, 29 innings pitched, five runs allowed.
"He knows he's gotten stardom written all over him," Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "He comes with that makeup. He comes with that belief that he's better than the hitter. He thinks he's going out there and throwing a no-hitter every time."
"Cole is good, man," Manager Charlie Manuel said. "I'm glad he pitches for us."
These days, Hamels with a three-run lead -- which his teammates had constructed by mid-game on Chase Utley's two-run homer in the first and an RBI groundout by Carlos Ruiz in the fourth -- is virtually unassailable, but the Rays chipped away.
Carl Crawford homered to right on a misplaced first-pitch curveball to lead off the bottom of the fourth, making it 3-1. An inning later, a two-out walk to Jason Bartlett, the Rays' No. 9 hitter, led to a run when Akinori Iwamura followed with a double into the gap in left-center.
With the bullpen the Phillies have, there was no temptation to send Hamels back out for the eighth. Those six remaining outs? No problem. Madson and Lidge handled the eighth and ninth expertly, striking out three batters between them and allowing only one ball to leave the infield. Game over.
The Phillies showed no signs of the rustiness, or misplaced timing, that has come to be expected of World Series teams -- most recently the 2006 Detroit Tigers and 2007 Colorado Rockies -- who clinched their berths early, resulting in lengthy layoffs before Game 1.
Their infield turned two tough double plays in the first three innings, both on ground balls by the speedy B.J. Upton, and their batters -- with the noteworthy exception of slugger Ryan Howard, 0 for 4 with three strikeouts for the night -- worked the count expertly against Scott Kazmir, the Rays' walk-prone lefty, running up his pitch count and dispatching him after six innings.
The game played out like a National League game, which was to the Phillies' advantage, full of batters moving runners over with grounders to the right side, runners frequently in motion and the constant sense that the next run would be the ultimate difference. Seemingly forgotten plays -- Upton's throw to nail Shane Victorino in the second, Hamels's pickoff (on a borderline balk) of Carlos Peña in the sixth -- suddenly loomed large.
For one game, at least, it was clear the best player on the field was the Phillies' old-school second baseman. It wasn't just the two-run homer. It was also the way Utley moved a runner to third in the third inning with a grounder to the right side, and the way he stood firm while turning a bases-loaded, inning-ending double-play in the bottom half of that inning, with a sliding Iwamura bearing down on him.
"You've got to sit and watch him day-in and day-out," Manuel said of Utley, "to really enjoy how good he is."
The best player on the field, the best starting pitcher in either rotation, and the closer who teeters, wobbles and bends, but never gives it up. At least in Game 1, there was no way the Phillies could lose.