Phil Sheridan: Hamels is beginning to look like an ex-ace
LOS ANGELES - Cole Hamels has the same great stuff that made him an instant postseason star last October. The fastball, the change-up, the curveball - they combine to make Hamels "unhittable," in the estimation of noted batsman Manny Ramirez.
It is the stuff between Hamels' ears that has been markedly different in 2009, and it continued to betray him last night.
"It's part of the process that I've had to go through all year," Hamels said, "learning how to deal with my emotions and learning to control them and forgetting about what just happened and going after the next guy."
Hopes that Hamels would shift gears with the end of his disappointing regular season faded after his lackluster start in Game 2 of the division series. They were replaced by hopes that he was merely distracted in that game by the impending birth of his son.
There isn't much to hang your hopes on after Hamels' Game 1 performance at Dodger Stadium.
Exactly one year after he pitched the game that won the National League pennant for the Phillies and the NL Championship Series MVP trophy for himself, Hamels was merely OK. The Phillies didn't even need him to be great - they gave him a 5-1 lead - but he was merely average.
Put it this way: Ramirez didn't find him all that unhittable.
Both starting pitchers experienced meltdowns. It wasn't so surprising when 21-year-old Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw did so in the eventful fifth inning. What was surprising was that, after Kershaw surrendered a three-run homer, walked two more guys and broke the LCS record for wild pitches in an inning, manager Joe Torre left him in to face Ryan Howard with two men on. Howard hit a two-run double off the free-falling Kershaw.
A 5-1 lead in Hamels' hand should have been "game over." Last year, it would have been. This year, he lost his composure and let the Dodgers turn it into a game and, worse, forced Charlie Manuel to turn that game over to a reconfigured and uncertain bullpen.
Hamels was visibly frustrated after second baseman Chase Utley threw a potential inning-ending double-play relay into the Phillies dugout. A run scored and noted batsman Manny Ramirez stepped into the batter's box with a runner on second.
"It's tough," Hamels said. "You're battling. I made the right pitch and got exactly what I wanted. Unfortunately the result didn't happen. It takes a lot out of you. These guys are tough hitters. When you do get them out, when you get them in a situation where you can seal the deal, it takes a lot of emotions to get through that. That was a moment where I thought we had that - and we didn't."
Ramirez struck out in the first and popped out in the third. But in each at-bat, he'd seen a lot of pitches and fouled a few off.
"Nobody can say they know how to pitch to Manny," his old friend Pedro Martinez said a few hours earlier. "Manny is such a great hitter and he's someone that makes adjustments as he sees the game develop."
Ramirez, who has more postseason homers than any player in history, crushed a 2-0 pitch to left-center field. The ball went 419 feet and that roomy 5-1 lead had been reduced to an airless, claustrophobic 5-4.
Hamels said he threw three change-ups to Ramirez.
"I thought I was making good pitches, but you know, he's Manny Ramirez," Hamels said. "He's a guy who can hit a ball as far as he wants. I was trying to get something down and away and hoping he would roll it over. Unfortunately, he golfed it out. There's not that many guys that can do that."
Hamels got through the inning, but he pitched his way back into trouble in the sixth. That was it for the former ace. It took a parade of relief pitchers to preserve that one-run lead until Raul Ibanez let the air back in with his three-run homer in the eighth.
Torre gambled that his young lefthander with the stuff would do what Hamels did last year. He lost that gamble, and now the Dodgers need a great performance by Vicente Padilla to avoid going to Philadelphia in an 0-2 hole.
Charlie Manuel wasn't taking any kind of gamble by starting Hamels in Game 1. With Cliff Lee lined up for Game 3 on Sunday, it was a no-brainer. Put the 2008 World Series MVP out there and let him show the world that that his regular season was a fluke.
Instead, Hamels showed the world how important that trade for Lee really was. It's hard to imagine the Phillies winning anything this month without their new lefthanded postseason ace.
Hamels still has great stuff. The stuff of greatness, though, seems to have stayed in 2008.