Originally published on October 23, 2008
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Just beyond the wall in right-center field, in their watery, fiberglass home, the 30 cownose rays were swimming their spooky, silent laps and keeping an eye on the World Series last night.
They might have been looking out for Luis Gonzalez, too - the only player to ever go tank at Tropicana Field - but that Gonzo wasn't in the park.
The fish were lurking all night, though, doing their ray thing and accepting handouts from the squid concession, while the fellows in the Rays uniform were doing their own lurking on the field, albeit without the appetizers.
The Phillies had Cole Hamels on the mound and Scott Kazmir on the ropes for much of the game but were never able to properly gaff their opponent.
After Chase Utley's two-run home run in the first, the Phils squandered opportunities the way cownose rays waste time. They had the bases loaded in the second inning and didn't score, and left runners in scoring position throughout the game.
By the time Ryan Howard struck out in the top of the seventh inning with Utley on third base and the Phils holding an extremely tenuous 3-2 lead, the Phillies were 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position, and Shane Victorino made it 0 for 11 when he struck out to end the inning. By the end of the game, the tally was 0 for 13.
Fortunately for the Phillies as they played their first World Series game in 15 years, they had Hamels making up for those oversights.
Coming into the game, the 24-year-old lefthander was 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in the postseason. Pitching in a rotation that has a hole here and there, Hamels is the stopper of those leaks and the caulk that bonds the players' belief in themselves.
"We definitely have confidence when Cole is on the mound," Utley said. "In this game, he made the pitches he needed to get out of jams."
Hamels pitched as if this were just another regular-season game, easing through his fluid motion to keep Tampa Bay off-balance with his mixture of fastballs and change-ups. He didn't have his best material, but made the best use of what he had.
"No, I've done better," Hamels said afterward when someone asked if this was as good as he could pitch. "Every round you face a better and better team, and you have to be a little more focused. You can't screw up as much. I left a few pitches out there, but when we score early, it really helps my game."
Hamels enticed double-play balls off the bat of B.J. Upton in the first and third innings to erase baserunners and Tampa Bay rallies. He gave up a solo home run to Carl Crawford in the fourth inning on a curveball, and allowed a run in the fifth on a walk to Jason Bartlett and a double in the gap by Akinori Iwamura.
Otherwise, he kept the Rays flailing. When Carlos Pena reached on a leadoff error by Howard, Hamels picked off the runner with a shifty move to first that had the Tampa Bay bench screaming for a balk.
"He was out," Hamels said. "I don't know what else I can say."
He finished his seven innings having given up just five hits and turned the game over to the tag team of Ryan Madson for the eighth inning and Brad Lidge for the ninth.
If it seemed routine - go out to start the World Series, go seven, give up just two runs - amid the clatter of the cowbells and the general strangeness of life in an indoor stadium that has its own aquarium, you have to understand that it wasn't, even for Hamels.
"When I think about how he pitched tonight," manager Charlie Manuel said, "it was like a regular game for him. He can be a little bit better. He can be a little bit sharper, but tonight he was very good. He took us to the right place in the game."
That was his job, and that is what he did. He can't control the rest. If the offense is going to stop producing after the fourth inning - and not produce all that much before it - Hamels can only do his part. If it takes outpitching Kazmir in a showdown between lefties whose careers have gone in lockstep to this moment, that is what he does.
That is what the aces do, and slowly, but suddenly as well, Cole Hamels has become that before our eyes.
On a night when the other team was always lurking, when nothing more than the upper hand in the world championship was at stake, Hamels rose to the moment like a ray to squid.
Out beyond the fence, where they have watched quite a few games, the fish swam silently and among themselves. They knew which one of the men on the field was the real predator.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
at 215-854-5842 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.