Commentary

Hamels, Howard stumble in Game 3

Pitcher, slugger main reasons Phillies are in 2-1 hole against the Yankees

Originally Published: October 31, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Chase Utley's record streak of 27 postseason games reaching base came to an end Saturday night. Ryan Howard has nine strikeouts in 13 World Series at-bats. And Cole Hamels' penchant for quick and inexplicable implosions remains an issue.

On a positive note, the Philadelphia transit workers haven't gone on strike yet, and the Pearl Jam concerts across the street have been terrific.

The Phillies haven't experienced a lot of October adversity the past two years. They never trailed in a series throughout the 2008 postseason, and it was the same story against Colorado and Los Angeles in the National League playoffs this year.

But now, suddenly, they're in a hole. After taking an early three-run lead against Andy Pettitte and the Yankees on Saturday night, the Phillies found a way to suck the life out of Citizens Bank Park. Hamels unraveled in the middle innings, and Philadelphia lost 8-5 to fall behind two games to one to New York.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/Matt SlocumCole Hamels couldn't make it out of the fifth inning and couldn't hold on to an early lead in Game 3.

One minute, the Phillies were whipping a crowd of 46,061 into a towel-waving fury. The next, they were standing in front of cameras and tape recorders in a quiet clubhouse, reflecting on what went wrong and repeating the same stoic mantra in anticipation of Game 4.

"There's no quit, there's no fear and there's no panic right now," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "When you have that going for yourself, you never give up on yourself, no matter what it looks like."

As players dressed, ate and headed out the door, the message board in the home clubhouse bore the message, "Turn Clocks Back One Hour Tonight." All things considered, the Phillies would have preferred to turn the clocks back three or four.

Game 3 wasn't a total loss. Right fielder Jayson Werth hit two homers to increase his overall count to seven this postseason. That ties him with Troy Glaus and B.J. Upton for the third-most in a postseason behind Barry Bonds, who hit eight in the fall of 2002, and Carlos Beltran, who matched that achievement in 2004.

But any snippets of good news for the Phillies were undermined by the performance of Hamels, who hasn't been able to get over the hump in the most trying year of his young major league career.

"That's been the story of my whole season," Hamels said. "I can cruise through hitters, and then all of a sudden -- boom. I don't hit a small speed bump. I hit a big one."

Things began promisingly enough. Hamels set down Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira in the first inning and sailed through three hitless innings with a mere 35 pitches. Hamels appeared calm, focused and more in control of the situation than Pettitte, who threw a whopping 51 pitches in the first two innings and completely lost his rhythm with runners on base.

Then Hamels' game plan went bump in the night. He seemed agitated when plate umpire Brian Gorman appeared to squeeze him on a 3-2 pitch to Teixeira in the fourth inning. Two pitches later, Alex Rodriguez hit a garden-variety fly ball off a camera beyond the right-field fence, and a replay review awarded him a home run.

"I thought it was a popup -- I really did," Hamels said. "I thought it was an out. But this is the park I play in, so I definitely know to expect this."

Hamels might have contributed to his undoing with some questionable choices. After rarely flashing his curveball early, Hamels got breaking-ball happy in the fifth inning and paid for it.

He threw three curveballs in a span of four pitches to Nick Swisher and surrendered a double inside the third-base bag. Then Hamels threw a 73 mph breaking pitch to Pettitte in anticipation of a sacrifice bunt attempt. When Pettitte lobbed the pitch into center field for a single, it began a three-run outburst that would inflate Hamels' postseason ERA to 7.58 and chase him from the game.

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonRyan Howard is 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts in his past two World Series games.

Hamels' demise came so quickly, there seemed to be no logical explanation for it. There was some buzz going around that he was suffering from a case of the flu, and Hamels didn't entirely debunk it with his postgame comments. He also declined to use it as an excuse.

"If you want to take my temperature, I'll go take it for you," he told a reporter. "There's something going around, but I can't equate that to not going out and doing my job. In baseball, you play a lot of games, and there are times when you are sick. You have to go out and do your business if you're feeling good or not feeling good."

Whatever's going around might be affecting the middle of the batting order as well. After homering twice in his first three at-bats in the series, Utley is 0-for-9 with an intentional walk in his past 10 plate appearances. And Howard looks completely out of sync -- as in, seven strikeouts and a pop out in his past eight at-bats.

"I'm probably just a little too anxious at the plate right now," Howard said. "It's just a matter of calming down. My last two at-bats, things didn't turn out the way I wanted to, but I was a little calmer and I felt like I was seeing the ball better. I'll try to carry that into [Game 4] and see what happens."

Said Rollins, "It could be mental. Maybe he's trying to get that big hit. He always grinds it out, and this is his time of year. Maybe a nice line drive to left-center gets him right back to where he needs to be. If that happens, there's going to be some fireworks."

The Game 4 pitching matchup doesn't look great on paper for the Phillies. They'll send out Joe Blanton, who's 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA in four career starts against the Yankees, against the always-formidable CC Sabathia.

"We'll get to see what we're made of," Rollins said.

It doesn't get any simpler than that.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer