Hamels survives and opportunity knocks

Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino wait for Ben Francisco at home after Francisco's home run. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

ST. LOUIS – Lurking below the praise of four Phillies starters capable on any given day of shutting down their opponent is that dark underbelly that has fed our anxiety all season long.

No, not the bullpen. Nothing lurking about it.

It’s this: On any given day, the opponent is capable of shutting down their team too. Especially when throwing lefthanded.

It’s why Jaime Garcia has resembled Sandy Koufax each time he has faced the Phillies, or to make the conversation more retro, Mike Scott or Bruce Hurst. It’s why this time of the year is more often determined by tiny plays than tiny ERAs, by one decision, one pitch or one swing, and not an aggregate effort.

And so it was in today's Game 3 of the National League Division Series, Cole Hamels surviving his round-by-round flinching match with Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia, pitching gritty more than pretty, making big pitches and getting the big outs over six shutout innings of intense pressure from the Cardinals lineup. And there was Garcia, so dominant for six of those innings, finally flinching in the worst of ways, surrendering Ben Francisco’s three-run home run to tilt a game he had dominated in the Phillies favor, and perhaps tilt this series as well.

The Phillies survived, 3-2, for a 2-1 series lead and will send Roy Oswalt to the hill tomorrow night in an attempt to seal a fourth straight trip to the National League Championship Series.

The winning blow came after Garcia struck out with two men on to end the sixth, and end Hamels night at 117 pitches. Garcia seemed to take that to the mound with him, falling behind 3-0 for the first time in the game to Shane Victorino before surrendering a single.

Then came the little decision by Tony LaRussa, celebrating his 67th birthday that had big consequences. Aware that the pinch-hitter on deck, Ben Francisco, had not hit a home run since May 25, the Cardinals manager ordered an intentional walk to Carlos Ruiz, who has just one hit in 11 tries this series. LaRussa also left Garcia in to hit the previous inning, but he could hardly be faulted for that.

Those who have heard Charlie Manuel on Ben Francisco know the refrain by heart. He likes fastballs, and Garcia delivered one, at 89 miles an hour, after a first-pitch ball. Francisco blasted it over the wall in right-centerfield for a 3-0 Phillies lead. They went on to win – survive, really – thanks to some clutch pitching by their closer, Ryan Madson, who induced a bases-loaded double play on his second pitch in the eighth inning and

“I knew the way the game was going I was going to probably pinch-hit off a lefty,” Francisco said in a television interview immediately after the game. “I was trying to get a hit up the middle and he left one out there.”

Opportunism won the Phillies their only World Series more than pitching did, and it cost them a third straight trip to the World Series against the Giants last year. ``You can have your big games in the postseason,’’ Hamels had said before this one. ``But at the same time, it takes a whole team. I know a pitcher can throw up a bunch of zeroes, but if they don't score, then you somewhat did your job, but at the same time you didn't get the win.’’

With two outs in the second inning and Ruiz still on first, Jimmy Rollins singled to centerfield. The late afternoon sun froze John Jay for a few seconds before he scurried in to field the ball. Had Ruiz been running on the pitch, he might have scored and provided that all-important lead.

The Cardinals were not without blips as well. With two outs in the fourth inning, Ryan Theriot stole second. Already down 2-0 to Jon Jay with the pitcher due up next, Ruiz stuck his glove out for an intentional walk. But the next pitch Hamels sailed frighteningly towards the plate and if Jay was more alert, could have easily been hammered into the outfield. Instead Hamels completed the walk and retired Garcia, holding the game scoreless after four innings despite throwing 77 pitches.

The oddity of that line was that Hamels threw first-pitch strikes to most of the Cardinals hitters while accumulating that total. Minus his best stuff, against the best hitting team in the National League, he refused to surrender a run.

We need a new name for Hollywood. He’s pretty after he pitches, not during.