If there was one thing that seemed to distinguish the Tampa Bay Rays from the Philadelphia Phillies entering this World Series, it was pitching depth.
The Phillies might have had the best starter on either squad in Cole Hamels, but conventional wisdom said the Rays held a firm advantage in rotation slots two through four.
So much for conventional wisdom.
Four games into the 104th Fall Classic, it’s the Phillies who hold a commanding 3-1 series lead. And how have they put themselves on the precipice of history? With superior starting pitching, of course.
The foursome of Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton has been nothing short of spectacular in this series, posting a 3.42 ERA. In this age of coddled starters and specialized relievers, each starter has pitched into the seventh inning.
That’s how you win a championship, and that’s why the Phillies will play for one Monday night in front of their own fans.
Truth be told, this shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. The back end of Philadelphia’s rotation seemed to be getting a bad rap for no good reason. Sure, Moyer struggled in the previous two rounds of the postseason. He still won 16 games this year and is one of the most successful pitchers of his time. And sure, Myers had an up-and-down year that included a brief stint at Class AAA. He still was the Opening Day starter for a defending division champ.
The key cog in the machine was Blanton. A midseason acquisition from Oakland, the husky right-hander has been superb for the last six weeks. Counting his victory Sunday night in Game 4, he is 5-0 with a 3.60 ERA in his last seven outings.
But he’s a No. 4 starter, not a No. 1. The Phillies certainly have one of those in the arsenal in Hamels.
They know a thing or two here about great left-handers, starting with the great Steve Carlton. The Hall of Famer threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 to a roar from the Citizens Bank Park crowd.
But the roar will be even louder Monday night when Hamels throws the first actual pitch of Game 5. This may sound like heresy, but Hamels is already well on his way to surpassing Carlton as the greatest left-hander in Phillies history.
Don’t believe it? Consider the stats.
Through the first 84 starts of his career, Carlton (who began with the St. Louis Cardinals) won 37 games. Through his first 84 starts, Hamels has won 38.
Yeah, but what about strikeouts, you ask? Carlton: 452. Hamels: 518.
Obviously he still needs to keep this up for another decade-plus before he can stand alongside Carlton in Cooperstown, but what Hamels has done in just three big league seasons must be taken seriously.
“Every time you hand him the ball, you expect him to win the game,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “Definitely he can throw a shutout for you. And I even look up sometimes and think he’s going to throw some no-hitters before his career is over. He’s that kind of pitcher.”
And there’s no one the Phillies would rather have on the mound Monday night with a chance to clinch the second title in franchise history.
“I hope I’m in that situation,” Hamels said before Game 4. “I truly do because that means we’re one step closer to bringing a World Series to the city of Philadelphia and to our team that’s worked so hard to achieve this.”
If Hamels comes across a bit cocky with his words, well, he is. But don’t mistake that bravado for insincerity.
“Cole is cocky in a good way,” Manuel said.
Translation: Hamels is good. He knows he’s good. And he uses that to his advantage.
When Hamels - who remains two months shy of his 25th birthday - takes the mound, he knows he’s going to win. He has the 95 mph fastball that blows hitters away, always a benefit for pitchers. But he also has the devastating finesse pitch that puts guys away: a circle change-up that Hamels first learned while in high school.
This is a pitcher you’re going to be seeing for a long time. This is going to be the guy you hate to see on the mound against your team.
And he’s exactly the kind of guy every great team needs: a bona fide ace who wants the ball in the biggest games and then rises to the occasion.
He may never face a bigger occasion than he will Monday night, with legions of Phillies fans counting on him to deliver the championship they have been craving for so long.