During all of the fretting and all of the wondering of another baseball summer in Philadelphia, we sometimes forget what really matters. We have been wowed by Brad Lidge, the team's most consistenly-excellent player if the measure is from April to the wire. We have been awed by Ryan Howard and how he has propped up this team as August turned into the seriousness of September.
But night after night, slog after slog, it is the starting pitcher going six innings, six reasonable innings or more, who has saved this season for the Phillies.
With the offense all over the place -- different contributors, sometimes no contributors -- it has been the starters who have been the backbone. With the bullpen -- so strong early, then taking a big dip, now stabilizing again -- it has been the starters who have kept order.
Last night in Atlanta, it was Cole Hamels. He quite obviously was not himself. He wasn't exactly struggling -- he gave up only six hits, and scattered them expertly -- but he was not close to cruising, either. This was real work. He has pitched more than 220 innings, more than anyone in baseball except Milwaukee's CC Sabathia and Toronto's Roy Halladay, and nothing is easy anymore. You can tell. You can see the strain on his face, the muttering he is doing now after somebody gets a hit. It is hard labor.
But he lasted six innings and it meant everything. People make fun of the "quality start" stat -- at least six innings pitched and three or fewer earned runs allowed -- but it might be the best measure of the brutal-but-calming, night-after-night effect that consistent starting pitching can have on a team. It settles things down. It gives you a chance.
The Phillies have 83 quality starts this year, the second-most in the National League. All of last year, they had only 74, 11th in the league. With nine games still to play, we are talking about a huge jump. With the offense so scattershot for so long, we are talking about the Phillies' lifeline.