If Cole Hamels' absurd run of greatness over the last two months plus wasn't enough to banish forever the doubts about his toughness and composure that arose late in the 2009 season, his performance Monday night in the second inning against the Braves in the opener of a huge showdown series hopefully did the trick. After Derrek Lee led off with a single, Brian McCann broke a scoreless tie with an RBI double. Matt Diaz followed with a single to left to give Atlanta runners at the corners with no outs and a chance to put an early stamp on their biggest game of the season.
Hamels calmly struck out Alex Gonzalez swinging, then induced a double play grounder--one of three he got on the night--from Melky Cabrera. Side retired, damage minimized. The Phillies evened the score in the bottom of the inning against Braves rookie Brandon Beachy when Ryan Howard led off with a double and came in on a two-out two-bagger from ever-clutch Carlos Ruiz. They took the lead in the fifth when all-world rookie Jason Heyward watched Shane Victorino's deep fly ball clank off his glove for a three-base error and Placido Polanco followed with an RBI groundout. Chase Utley singled, stole second and went to third as McCann's throw bounced away from second base; two batters later, he scored on a Raul Ibanez RBI groundout.
The Phillies had other chances which they couldn't cash in, but with Hamels dealing, they didn't need them. Despite a tight strike zone by home plate ump Mark Carlson, he was in control all night: starting with the Gonzalez strikeout, Hamels set down nine in a row. After Gonzalez doubled with one out in the fifth--cursing himself the whole way to second, probably thinking about his previous at-bat--he struck out Cabrera and Beachy to retire the side. After Lee singled to lead off the seventh, Hamels retired the last six batters he faced. His final line: eight innings, six hits, one run, one walk, six strikeouts, 117 pitches.
Brad Lidge came on in the ninth and showed the Slider of Doom: he started the inning by striking out Heyward on three pitches, got Martin Prado on a pop fly to center, and struck out Lee on another slider to close it out for the Phils' 90th win of the season and a four-game lead in the NL East. Their magic number is now at 8.
Roy Halladay tries to shrink it by another two tomorrow night, facing Braves rookie Mike Minor.