Bob Ford: Big test for new and improved Hamels

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Cole Hamels will take the mound in Game 3 of the NLCS this afternoon. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

SAN FRANCISCO - The wind swirled in off the bay Monday afternoon as the Phillies and Giants took their turns and took their swings in AT&T Park.

It is a big ballpark for a hitter, unless you happen to crush one down the short line in right field, and this time of year, when the damp wind cruises through it gets even bigger. This is generally all right with the pitchers.

In what might be the pivotal game of the National League Championship Series, and the pivotal game of the entire season, the Phils will send out Cole Hamels in Game 3 Tuesday against the Giants, and we'll find out if he likes it, too.

Hamels is almost the little brother of the starting Big Three for the Phillies, given a bit of a backseat to Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt and relegated behind both in the pitching order this series.

That's fine with him, even if the schedule gives him the ball in a day game, a situation that hasn't always been kind to him, and even if it wasn't that long ago he was the unquestioned No. 1 on the staff.

"Postseason is where it's at. It's the ultimate time to show what type of player and what type of pitcher you are," Hamels said after the Phillies' off-day workout.

Hamels pitched well this season but only had a 12-11 record to show for it. He had poor run support as the team scored fewer than three runs in 14 of his starts, and his 3.06 ERA easily could have yielded a much better record.

Regardless of those numbers, it was a good season for Hamels because, after watching Cliff Lee last season, and after working with Halladay beginning in spring training, he was able to add the elusive third pitch to his fastball-change-up repertoire. Working in a cut fastball, a cutter, that comes to the plate at a velocity somewhere between his two old reliables has made him less predictable for hitters. Or less guessable, anyway.

"It's a pitch you have to throw, even if you're not comfortable with it or confident with it, you have to throw it in order to learn and master it," Hamels said.

Which is fine against Washington in June, but the final examinations are taking place now. Hamels threw a complete-game shutout in the division series against the Reds, and that game and the ones that follow are the ones people will remember.

"I think he's a stronger pitcher now. I think he has more arsenal, more equipment, more pitches," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Here's a guy [who was] getting by and pitching lights-out with two pitches. But somewhere along the line it got out of whack, and everybody started figuring out what was wrong with him."

Whether he figured it out for himself is what matters, and Hamels has prospered and improved in a still-young career during which he has been alternately labeled as injury-prone or one-dimensional or too California cool.

It turns out he is none of those, although he does seem to like pitching in his home state. Hamels is 5-1 with a 3.30 ERA in nine career starts in California. He's had some trouble in his last two starts in San Francisco (11 innings, 19 hits, 10 earned runs), but, again, everything that has come before was mere preparation for an opportunity like this one.

Hamels won't get another start in this round unless the series goes seven games, if Manuel stays with his stated intent of pitching Joe Blanton in Game 4. If the Phillies were to lose Game 3, however, and fall behind in the series, there is the real chance Manuel would skip Blanton and ask Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels to take their next turns on three days of rest.

This kind of thing has come up before as speculation, but Hamels has never pitched on short rest in his career. In the past, he has said he prefers his routine, but that might have changed, too.

"I think I've been here enough to where I feel confident I could do it," Hamels said. "I'm definitely ready. I've been healthy all year. I've been strong throughout the postseason. I could do it if asked."

Manuel could have thrown Hamels earlier in this series, at least by one game, but he kept the Roys together, and that decision gave Hamels the only daytime start in the NLCS. He is 15-16 with a 4.27 ERA during the day in his career and 45-29 with a 3.20 ERA in night starts.

"It's just a stat, I guess," Hamels said.

Well, hopefully. Or perhaps the new Cole Hamels, the stronger version with the more versatile array of pitches, is not the same guy who compiled most of those stats.

"He's an intense competitor," teammate Jayson Werth said. "He's fearsome. He attacks, knows what he's doing, and he's got a plan."

The plan is to keep the hitters inside this large ballpark and let the Phillies sail closer to a third straight World Series on the strong winds off the bay. Hamels can have a lot to do with that on Tuesday as the final examinations continue.

 


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.