Phil Sheridan: Phillies living up to their billing

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Chase Utley's home run in the fifth inning was one of the decisive plays in the Phillies' win. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

CINCINNATI - The thrill isn't gone, even if the suspense is, and even if the novelty of October baseball in Philadelphia is a distant memory.

The Phillies have turned series clinches into routine events. This is a franchise with an annual champagne budget that would impress Kanye West.

Two years ago, you were pinching yourself after the Phillies beat Milwaukee in the first round and then took out the Dodgers in five games to go to the World Series.

This year, the only real question was who the Phillies will face in the National League Championship Series.

"This is just a step," Cole Hamels said Sunday night amid a relatively sedate champagne celebration. "We want to win these next four games as fast as we possibly can. Our goal is to win the World Series."

Think of each of these playoff-winning teams as your children. There are a million pictures of the first-born and half as many of No. 2. You love the third kid just as much, but the excitement level at that first word or step just isn't quite the same.

"This is a good first step," Chase Utley said. "We have the feeling we can beat a lot of teams."

This sweep of the Cincinnati Reds will be remembered for Roy Halladay's no-hit masterpiece in Game 1 and not much else.

The Reds were not ready for this, not nearly. They kicked the ball around like it was the first day of T-ball practice, making it all too easy for this poised and talented Phillies team to swat them away like gnats.

These Phillies have their sights set on the World Series. Period. They handled the first round like it was a weekend in August.

But just as the Phillies went through the ritual of spraying champagne in another visitors' clubhouse, it is important for the rest of us to acknowledge how special these moments are.

When Cole Hamels threw strike three past (who else) Scott Rolen, the Phillies had completed their first postseason sweep ever. They had punched their ticket to a third consecutive NLCS - a feat they managed just six times in their previous history.

Most important, this series showed just how devastating the Phillies' trio of starting pitchers can really be for a playoff opponent. It was all the talk going into the postseason, but you never know for sure until things play out.

Halladay? Brilliant. Roy Oswalt? Not as sharp, but you suspect he'll make up for that. Hamels? Dominant. Maybe this is a case of the fresher images shining brighter than the older ones, but Hamels looked even better Sunday night than he did when he was winning MVP awards in 2008.

"I'm definitely glad they're on our side," Utley said. "Cole pitched outstanding. He had everything working from the first inning."

Hamels was spotting fastballs in the mid-90s, mixing in a cutter, and then pulling the trapdoor with his nasty change-up. If Halladay hadn't just made history a few nights earlier, this would have been a contender for best-pitched Phillies playoff game ever.

There's just no way to overstate this. Once they squandered their one opportunity by falling apart in Game 2, the Reds had zero chance. They went into Game 3 having to beat Hamels just for a chance to see Halladay again. There's no way that wasn't weighing on their minds. They were beaten before Hamels threw his first pitch.

The Phillies made it to Game 6 of the World Series last year with 1.5 effective starting pitchers. Cliff Lee was excellent. Pedro Martinez was good at times, and not good enough against the Yankees. Hamels was simply disappointing.

Now? In the Year of the Pitcher, the Phillies are the team with the best pitchers. This team built on power and more power just swept three games with a total of four extra-base hits: three doubles and Utley's fence-grazing, boo-this solo home run in the fifth inning Sunday night.

The way things are shaping up, the Phillies are going to have to get used to winning this way. They will play either the Atlanta Braves, who have very good pitching, or the San Francisco Giants, who have even better pitching.

If Halladay is matched up with the Giants' Tim Lincecum in Game 1 on Saturday, the scoreboard operator might as well just take the night off.

"You've just got to figure out a way to win," Ryan Howard said. "Scratch, claw, get runs however you can. I think everybody in here is focused on winning the World Series. That's the goal."

With Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels, the goal is well within their reach. It is incredible, but true, that a team with a World Series title and an NL pennant in the last 24 months is actually better equipped now than ever to win it all.

Down the line, you suspect a rematch with the Yankees awaits them. Beyond that, with Halladay and Hamels and Oswalt on their side, you suspect another parade down Broad Street awaits us all.

 


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.