We've reached a point where the search for potential meaning requires a considerable amount of effort. With 33 games remaining, their magic number to clinch a playoff spot is just 16. That means they lock up the postseason by going 16-17 the rest of the way. With each loss by the folks in Wild Card contention is one less win the Phillies need to reach October (SanFran is 8.5 behind Atlanta and 14.5 behind the Phils; St. Louis is 9.5 and 15.5 back; Cincy is 12 back and 18 back, and the Rockies and Mets are both 15.5 and 21.5 back).
Put simply, the Phillies' stretch run will have less dramatic programming than HGTV.
But there are a few exceptions, and tonight's start of a four-game series in Cincinnati is one of them. Not only are the Phillies coming off a four-day stretch in which they played one game, the man on the mound will be starting on 16 days' rest.
That man, Cole Hamels, is of vital importance to the Phillies' postseason chances. He will be the lynchpin in any postseason rotation, the likely starter in a Game 3 in which he is vastly superior to his opponent. Particularly if the Phillies end up facing Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in the first two games of a Best-of-Five NLDS, a victory in Game 3 could very well spell the difference between a fourth straight berth in the NLCS or an early trip home. At the moment, Hamels ERA is a full run lower than any of starters he would likely be matched up against in an NLDS and NLCS.
But that is at the moment. Tonight is our first glance at him since Aug. 12, when a troubling dip in velocity prompted the Phillies to submit him to a precautionary MRI on a shoulder they were all convinced was just stiff. Turns out, they were right. The MRI revealed inflammation in the posterior shoulder and rotator cuff, but that is not uncommon among starting pitchers in August. There is a chance a guy like Roy Halladay is pitching through inflammation somewhere and we'll never know it. But the Phillies need Hamels healthy and Hamels is in the final year of his current contract so it makes sense for all sides to put to rest any fears that might arise out of a shoulder that does not feel quite right.
Of course, we all want to see for ourselves, and tonight is our first chance. Anything that happens is sure to be tempered by the Phillies, whether his velocity is still a tick or two below normal ("He hasn't pitched in 16 days!") or he tosses seven shutout innings ("It's only one game!").
So what should we expect?
In terms of velocity, Hamels has sat consistently between 91 and 93 over the last two seasons. On good days, he can touch 94 or even 95 a few times.
More importantly, though, is the angle of his fastball - is he able to get on top of the ball and "throw downhill" like he has over the last two years. In Hamels' rough 2009 season, his velocity was a touch below normal, but not to the extent that he should have struggled like he did. More significant was the inconsistency of his location and the level plane of his fastball. Over the last two seasons, his groundball rate has risen from 40.4 percent in 2009 to 45.4 percent in 2010 to 52.7 percent in 2011. When Hamels' fastball was flat, hitters were getting much better swings on his pitches. The old axiom in baseball is that the hitters will tell a pitcher where he is at.
The Reds have plenty of talented ones.
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