Starters at center of potential clincher
Hamels can lead Phils to Series, but Billingsley can bounce back
LOS ANGELES -- For the Philadelphia Phillies, what looks like the ideal situation is about to occur.
They are one victory away from the World Series. And they have on the mound a pitcher who is rapidly emerging as a postseason ace, Cole Hamels.
With a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series, the Phillies will send Hamels against the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley in Game 5, scheduled for Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.
To this point, manager Charlie Manuel's handling of his postseason rotation appears to be both correct and precise. By not going with a three-man rotation and not bringing Hamels back on short rest for Game 4, as the Dodgers did with Derek Lowe, the Phillies will have Hamels starting in Game 5 with an extra day of rest due to the scheduled off-day on Tuesday.
There could be a downside to this strategy. If the Phillies are unable to clinch in the fifth or sixth game, it would apparently be Jamie Moyer's turn to pitch in Game 7. After Moyer was hit hard in Game 3, Manuel would not commit to Moyer as his Game 7 starter. But if Hamels pitches as he has pitched before in this postseason, the Phillies won't be faced with a Game 7 decision, or any Game 7 at all.
Hamels has set the Phillies on the right path in both the Division Series and the NLCS with Game 1 victories. Hamels was brilliant against the Cubs with eight shutout innings, and he wasn't far off that standard in the opener against the Dodgers, giving up just two runs in seven innings.
Hamels' postseason earned run average stands at 1.20. A Game 5 victory would make him a prime candidate for Most Valuable Player of the NLCS, but the collective stakes are significantly larger than that.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, send out their own 24-year-old, Billingsley, who was dominant against the Cubs in the Division Series, but was roughed up by the Phillies in Game 2 of the NLCS to the tune of eight runs, seven earned, in 2 1/3 innings. But Billingsley, 15-6 after April this season, has the stuff to turn in another dominant performance in any start.
3-1 edge significant in NLCS
|With the Phillies' victory in Game 4, an NLCS stands at 3-1 for the 12th time since it became a best-of-seven series in 1985. Nine of the previous 11 teams went on to win its NLCS, with only the 2003 Marlins and 1996 Braves rallying from the 3-1 deficit to win three straight and take the series.|
|Year||Team up 3-1||Opponent||Final|
|NLCS winners in bold.|
"I think the last time out, he may have tried to over-prepare," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said of Billingsley. "That's just my opinion. [It] looked like he was trying to do too many things or think about doing too many things, as opposed to just going out there and staying with his plan of using his stuff and changing speeds and using the variety that he has.
"I didn't think he changed speeds enough. He did early on, and then all of a sudden it became hard, hard, hard, and he paid the price for it."
Torre remains confident that Billingsley can bounce back with the kind of performance he produced against the Cubs. When he speaks to his team before Game 5, Torre said, part of his encouragement will be the presence of Billingsley on the mound.
"We have a guy named Chad Billingsley who has been huge for us, and that usually carries the momentum into when you need to do something positive, it's usually based on how well you pitch," Torre said on Tuesday. "And I have a sense he'll pitch well [in Game 5]."
If Billingsley has been up and down in two postseason starts, Hamels has been up and up. At this time of year, a pitcher succeeds not only because he has the talent to succeed, but because he not only survives the pressure-packed postseason atmosphere, he thrives in it, he welcomes it.
In two highly successful, top-of-the-postseason rotation starts this October, Hamels has looked exactly like that kind of pitcher.
"I think throughout my career or my lifetime, which hasn't been as much or as long as Jamie," Hamels said with a smile, "you know, going out there in the big game you want to be that guy that can dictate it.
"And I think if you have the mind-set and the talent to do so, then you should be able to go out there and have success. And I think that's something I have the confidence that I can go out there and do. I know I have the talent to do it. It's just a matter of time and getting the opportunity to do it.
"I've had the opportunity this year, and I've been able to not only come through but hopefully put us into more situations where I can do it again, and again, and again."
That's the kind of ambition you want from your postseason No. 1. For the moment, as opposed to "again, and again, and again," the Phillies will settle for Hamels being at his best in Game 5 of the NLCS. Then Hamels and his team could have some of those "agains" in the 2008 World Series.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.