Commentary

Game 3 starters know about hard luck

Frustration, adversity have helped Giants' Matt Cain, Phillies' Cole Hamels mature

Updated: October 19, 2010, 2:52 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Matt Cain and Cole Hamels will report for work on the same pitcher's mound, on the same October stage, Tuesday afternoon. The postseason fate of their two baseball teams -- the 2010 editions of the Giants and Phillies -- may well depend on what happens after they get there.

But these are two 26-year-old pitchers with more in common than the mound they'll both hang out on in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, a series now tied at one win apiece.

They've both grown to learn an important lesson, in life and in baseball -- namely, that there are forces in the universe that are out of their hands.

And sometimes those forces deal you nothing but frustration -- as opposed to a package full of cheers and trophies and guest-host spots on "Saturday Night Live."

Sports can be like that. Life can be like that. And unless you grow, as a man and as an athlete, and learn to handle those frustrations, you can never become everything you ought to be.

Matt Cain has learned those lessons. Cole Hamels has learned those lessons. And now here they are, arriving at the same defining moment in postseason time, on the same mound, on the same day. So let's examine the forces that brought them here.

We'll start with this loaded question: Is there a pitcher alive who has had less to show, over the past few years, for the unhittable lightning bolts that come darting out of his right hand than Cain?

Good luck finding one.

Over the past four seasons, there are 17 active starting pitchers who have made at least 75 starts and compiled an ERA under 3.50. Every one of them has a winning record -- except one.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
AP Photo/Ezra ShawMatt Cain was tied for first in the NL with 25 quality starts in 2010.

Guess who?

In fact, 14 of those 17 pitchers are at least 10 games over .500 in that span. And seven of them are at least 20 games over .500.

But not Cain.

His record, incredibly, is 42-49 over the past four years. Youch.

Want to know what his record probably ought to be? There's no 100 percent accurate answer to that question, obviously. But according to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, Cain's "support neutral" won-loss record, spanning exactly the same period, computes to 55-36.

Only six pitchers in baseball -- Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Dan Haren -- have racked up more "support neutral" wins, invisible as they may be, in that time than Cain.

But Cain hasn't spent his career pitching in a "support neutral" world. He's spent his career pitching for the Giants, a team that has mostly subscribed to the "support brutal" theory of run production when it's been Cain's turn to pitch.

So after a while, a guy like this begins to figure out that there is more important stuff involved in his job description than the misleading numbers that show up in his personal "wins" column. And he said Monday that what he's learned from all this should serve him well in Game 3, when his job will be to outduel the 2008 World Series MVP.

"You get used to pitching in tight ballgames like this," said Cain, who went 13-11 this year despite the 15th-best ERA (3.14) in the league. "Cole is going to go out there, throw the ball well, and you're expecting that to be a tight series and a good pitching matchup. So you get used to pitching in close ballgames and understanding when the big pressure parts of the game kind of come about."

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarCole Hamels is 6-1 with a 1.38 ERA over his past nine outings.

And what that understanding is all about, he said, is finding a way to take charge of those situations instead of letting them take charge of him.

"I think you just learn to maybe slow some of the key situations in the game down," Cain said. "You try to take advantage of taking control of the game when you know you may have guys on base and counts aren't in your favor or whatever. You just try to figure out ways to slow the game down to get back to the pace that you want it to be at, to try to get the momentum back on your side."

Well, the guy Cain will match up against Tuesday can sure relate to that. Outside of Hernandez, there might not be a pitcher in baseball whose won-loss record this year bore so little resemblance to actual performance than Hamels.

He finished second among all NL left-handers in strikeouts (211) and fourth among that same group in ERA (3.06) -- and he still wound up with just a 12-11 record. But that wasn't his fault.

In 12 of Hamels' 33 starts, the Phillies forgot to score a single run for him while he was in the game. In five others, they scored one run while he was in the game. In one stretch, from July through early September, six times in 11 starts he found himself leaving (or completing) starts while the score was either 1-0 or 0-0.

Hamels grew up dreaming about winning 20 games every year. But it's tough winning 20 that way -- unless you're going to have an ERA of about 0.24. So there was a time in Hamels' career when the angst of living through a stretch, and a season, like that would have lit a bonfire inside him that all fire trucks in Philadelphia couldn't have put out.

But not this season.

This was the season, said pitching coach Rich Dubee, when Hamels finally learned to stop sweating the small stuff that happens to every pitcher at some time or other. Asked if he thought Hamels would have handled that parade of 1-0 games differently last season, Dubee replied:

"If this was last year? Absolutely. But if this was last year, you probably wouldn't have seen as many 1-0 games -- because there might have been something during the course of the game that threw him off of his game. This year, he's been rock solid. He's learned to attack the game, one batter at a time, one pitch at a time, and he doesn't let anything else get in his way."

And that difference was a direct outgrowth of what happened to him in 2009, the worst season of Hamels' life at any level -- the sub-.500 record (10-11), the 4.32 ERA and the postseason nightmare in which he allowed 16 runs in 19 innings.

"Cole didn't handle adversity very well last year," Dubee said. "And he made a conscious effort this winter to get himself not only mentally, but physically, ready to pitch -- and to pitch in these types of ballgames, and pitch with the same approach no matter what was going on in the ballgame. And he's done a tremendous job at it."

If there was any doubt about that, Hamels dispelled it convincingly in his first start of this postseason -- when he walked to the mound in Cincinnati nine days ago and threw the first shutout in a clinching postseason game since Josh Beckett in the 2003 World Series.

When people look at the man who pitched that game and start dissecting the reasons for the U-turn north that Hamels took this season, they tend to focus on the newfound hop on his fastball or the cutter he added to his repertoire this spring. But neither is really the biggest change in this man.

The biggest change is the change above his eyebrows -- where his brain is constantly reminding him what a tough sport baseball can be.

"Things aren't going to be easy in life, and especially in the game of baseball," he said Monday. "But the people that get through it are the ones that make the adjustments and try to strive to be better. And I think that's kind of what it's taught me."

Well, Matt Cain definitely knows that drill. So on Tuesday, both he and Cole Hamels will stalk toward that pitcher's mound at AT&T Park with a clearer understanding of what this mission is really all about.

This is a time of year when stats don't matter, winning those box-score-line beauty contests don't matter. And, especially, the numbers in any pitcher's personal "wins" column don't matter.

What matters in October, what matters in Game 3 of a dead-even postseason series, is doing whatever it takes to get your team to the postgame fist-bump procession. And these are two guys incredibly well-equipped now, after the lessons they've learned, to do that.

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.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com