Ryne Sandberg came to the postgame podium Wednesday wearing a Little League shirt and hat - a homage to the Mid-Atlantic champion Taney team from Philadelphia. It was certainly a nice gesture, but feel free to insert your own punch line about that not being much different from any other day during this lost season.
"We all played Little League. It's getting back to the basics of baseball," Sandberg said after the Phillies slipped past the Mariners, 4-3.
The basics of baseball were nowhere to be found in Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, however, as the teams combined for two errors, three wild pitches, a passed ball, a botched suicide squeeze, and a bunch of catches in the outfield that looked like magic tricks. Textbook baseball this was not, but the Phillies will take their wins as they find them.
The same goes for starter Cole Hamels, who wasn't very sharp and lasted only five innings, but somehow came away with his seventh win of the season. Hamels is 7-6 with a 2.53 earned-run average. In his previous 22 starts, he gave up three runs or fewer in 13 games that ended either with a no-decision or a loss.
"He's been outstanding and he was due for a win like this, where he doesn't have his best stuff," Sandberg said. "He's been on a long roll with a lot of good games and not a lot to show for it as far as his record."
Hamels had trouble keeping his fastball from rising to the Seattle hitters and he struggled to keep them off balance. He has had an average outing of 62/3 innings this season but needed 99 pitches to get through five against the Mariners and was bailed out by a strong bullpen performance from Jake Diekman, Ken Giles, and Jonathan Papelbon.
"When I was able to locate the fastball, I was getting the foul balls and checked swings, but when I left the balls up, that's when they were hammering them," Hamels said. "You're putting yourself in a tight spot . . . but you just have to battle sometimes."
The battle for Hamels this season, and for all the Phils, has been to stay focused and professional even though there is nothing tangible at stake any longer. Pride comes into the equation, and many of the players are working toward some financial future, but for Hamels, whose past achievements have secured his place, not giving in to the losses has been remarkable.
"It's not just this season. It's my whole career. It kind of just happens," Hamels said about seeing more than just wins and losses. "You've got to look at other numbers."
Those numbers are there. Hamels is among the top 10 in the National League for ERA, strikeouts, and opponent's batting average. That he has put together a season like that for a team that is 12th in the league in batting average, 12th in on-base percentage, and 13th in slugging is why the record is 7-6. With approximately seven starts left, he might need luck to post double-digit wins.
Since 1970, the Phils have had 17 starters who pitched to an ERA of less than three runs per game. (Not counting Roy Oswalt, who had a 1.74 ERA in 12 starts in 2010, or Ben Rivera, who had a 2.82 ERA in 14 starts in 1992.) Of those pitchers, none won fewer than 12 games, and that was J.A. Happ in 2009, who had only 23 starts that year.
Hamels is either having one of the greatest bad seasons in team history or one of the worst great seasons. Either way, what has happened this year isn't his fault, and, as the manager suggested, he was due for a break. Wednesday's game was the first time he has won this season while giving up more than one earned run. Think about that.
"[Today] was one of those times you need everybody behind you and everybody was able to deliver, [like] having the bullpen come in and put up the type of numbers they did," Hamels said. "They're great pitchers and they're definitely developing into top-caliber guys which is going to set up the bullpen for the future. You have to like what you see."
The question, of course, is whether Hamels will still be producing seasons like this one when the future finally arrives for the young arms in the bullpen and the rest of the team. Or will it take another decade, when the real Little Leaguers of today are old enough to start arriving on the scene?
Hamels doesn't know. He only knows that "baseball is baseball," and that means there are some numbers you have to ignore and some you have to cherish. Those are the real basics of the game and even this season can't change that.