Phillies armed for NL East takeover
Life doesn't get easier after Hamels for Braves, who face Halladay, Oswalt next
PHILADELPHIA -- The days keep falling off the calendar. The games keep disappearing off the schedule. And the outs were ticking off the scoreboard Monday night at Citizens Bank Park when the knucklehead in the red body suit came stomping out of the seats, in search of his 15 seconds of fame.
It was a dumb enough idea in the first place, considering it was the seventh inning of a tense, first-place National League East showdown between the Phillies and the Braves. It got dumber in a hurry when Braves left fielder Matt Diaz decided to take this madness into his own hands.
Or, to be technical, his own kneecaps.
As the knucklehead made the mistake of wandering into Diaz's neighborhood, the left fielder stuck out his knee, tripped up the Red Hornet, then stepped back and watched in amusement as, in his words, "their security guard crushed him."
"I saw a cop coming with a Taser," Diaz reported afterward, after pulling even with Ray Lewis in sacks this month, at one apiece. "And I figured the guy would rather have me trip him than get tasered."
Hey, good thinking. Now if only the Braves had this much success tripping up the Phillies.
As recently as July 22 -- a mere 60 days ago -- this Braves team led the stumbling, injury-racked Phillies by seven games in the NL East. But not anymore.
In those 60 days, the Phillies somehow have made up 11 games in the standings. They've gone 42-15 in those 60 days. They've gone 20-4 in the past four weeks. They've ripped off eight straight September wins for just the second time in their past 90 seasons of existence.
And now, after Monday's 3-1 win over Atlanta in the first game of a potentially race-ending three-game series, the Phillies are in one of those spots teams fantasize about when they show up beneath the palm trees in February:
"You know, you never want to feel comfortable in this game or relaxed," said Phillies closer Brad Lidge, after a 1-2-3, two-whiff, ninth-inning save had finished off Cole Hamels' fifth straight win. "But at the same time, if there's ever a time where you're going to feel confident with where you're at, that's obviously got to be right now."
The Braves, on the other hand, still find themselves in an excellent little September place themselves -- two games up in the wild-card race with 11 games left. And that's fine with them.
Asked Monday whether he was cool with making the playoffs as the wild-card entry if the Braves couldn't catch the Phillies, manager Bobby Cox chuckled and said: "Frigging right."
"I mean, we want to win the division," Cox said. "But it doesn't make any difference at all, as long as you're in."
And Cox ought to know. He's watched four of his 14 division winners in Atlanta march into October and have their seasons ended by wild-card teams. Nevertheless, if the Braves have any designs on taking this division, these next two days would be a good place to get that ball rolling.
But just losing that opener has already screwed up the master plan for this week -- which was a sweep that would have tied the division.
"Even if you beat them two out of three, you've only made up one game, and three games come off the schedule," Derek Lowe said before this game. "You pretty much have to sweep to make it beneficial. ... So you don't like to say that any game is must-win. But this [opener] would be about as close as it gets, because you lose, and all of a sudden you're coming to the park down four [games], with Halladay going."
And that, unfortunately for the Braves, is now exactly where they find themselves -- having to do something no team has done:
Beat Halladay and Oswalt back to back.
If you go back to the day Oswalt showed up (July 30), the Phillies have an insane .759 winning percentage (22-7) when he, Halladay and Hamels start. That's nearly 10 full turns through the rotation and only seven losses.
So if there's any good news for Atlanta, it might be this: At least neither Halladay nor Oswalt is pitching as well as Hamels is right now.
Over his past five starts, the 26-year-old left-hander is 5-0 with a ridiculous 0.49 ERA. That's two runs and just 18 hits allowed in 36 2/3 innings pitched, with 35 strikeouts.
By winning Monday, Hamels became just the second Phillies pitcher in the past decade to win five straight starts (joining Halladay, who did it earlier this year). And he's become only the fourth Phillie in the live-ball era to roll out a streak of five straight starts in which he's allowed one run or none while pitching six innings or more (joining Dick Ruthven in 1982, Steve Carlton in 1972 and Jim Bunning in 1967).
"He's not the same pitcher," Braves catcher Brian McCann of Hamels afterward. "He's throwing 95 [mph] now. The last couple of years he was 91-92. Now he's 95. And with that changeup and that cutter he throws now whew."
Hamels won a World Series MVP award while throwing basically two pitches -- fastball and changeup. Now he's mastered a cutter to discombobulate right-handed hitters and rediscovered a curve to show to left-handed hitters. And as he's figured out how to mix them over the second half, he's been on the best regular-season roll of his career.
He has a 1.72 ERA since July 11. Nobody in the NL is lower.
"It's nice to be able to throw all four pitches for strikes," he said Monday. "That's something I really never had before. I never had four. I used to have two. It makes it more fun when you know you can play that chess match."
But it all starts with Hamels' fastball. And thanks to an intense offseason conditioning program and between-start sessions in the same workout room as Halladay, Hamels is as strong now as he's been in any September in his life.
So of his 117 pitches Monday, 74 were four-season fastballs. And he threw 70 percent of them for strikes, a season high. That put him in position to get five swinging strikeouts on his fabled disappearing changeup. And after the second inning, the Braves barely applied pressure on him.
He allowed hits to four of the first six hitters he faced -- and to just two of the last 22. Then Lidge came in and blew away the middle of the Braves' order, continuing a seven-week roll that almost no one outside his own clubhouse seems to have noticed. In 21 appearances since Aug. 1, the league is hitting a whopping .116 off Lidge, with 21 strikeouts and only eight hits.
So all of a sudden, the Phillies are the team that seems to have its pitching all lined up, while the Braves -- a team built around pitching -- have found themselves starting guys in the first two games of this series who began this season in the Southern League.
In Game 1, it was 24-year-old Brandon Beachy, a fellow who was signed out of the Virginia Valley College Summer League two years ago and was rushed to the big leagues Sunday from the Instructional League when Jair Jurrjens tweaked his knee. In Game 2 on Tuesday, it will be Mike Minor, a 22-year-old left-hander who has made seven big league starts.
Not that that scares the manager.
"If they're good enough to bring up here," Cox said, "they're good enough to put in a ballgame."
But they're not Hamels, Halladay and Oswalt, either. And because of how those three have rewritten the NL East script, it's the team that runs those three out there that now controls the fate of this race.
"They've still got a great team," Lidge made sure to say of the Braves. "And just because you're throwing two good guys out there doesn't mean you're going to win. That's why we play the games. But if they (i.e., Halladay and Oswalt) can do their thing, and we all can take care of our business, then I like our chances a lot."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
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