Hamels' gem has Phillies up four in East
Red-hot lefty allows one run in eight innings against Braves
PHILADELPHIA -- Cole Hamels paused for a moment and offered a diplomatic answer to a difficult question:
Who is the ace of the Phillies' pitching staff?
"Charlie," he said slowly following Monday's 3-1 victory over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park. "He makes the calls. He gets us motivated. He gets us going."
Phils manager Charlie Manuel might be the motivator, but Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hamels are the aces. They are three big reasons why the Phillies have a four-game lead over Atlanta in the National League East with just 11 games to play. They are why the club oozed confidence before Hamels threw his first pitch.
The Phillies won Monday, which means they can bury the Braves with strong efforts from Halladay and Oswalt on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
"You never want to feel comfortable in this game or relaxed, but I think at the same time, if there's ever a time when you feel confident with where you're at, that's got to be right now, considering what we've done the last two months to catch the Braves and go ahead a little bit," closer Brad Lidge said. "Yes, if they do their thing and we all take care of our business, then I like our chances a lot."
Hamels allowed just six hits and one run in eight innings to improve to 12-10 with a 2.93 ERA. He walked just one and struck out six.
This is nothing new. Hamels is 6-3 with a 1.74 ERA in 14 starts since July 10, which is the second-best ERA in baseball. Only Seattle's Felix Hernandez has been better at 1.59. Hamels also is 5-0 with a 0.49 ERA in his last five starts.
He is throwing with remarkable confidence and conviction. He knows he can work out of any jam. He knows he can throw any pitch in any situation for a strike.
"Hamels pitched a great game," Braves catcher Brian McCann said.
He showed some of his confidence in the second inning. Braves first baseman Derrek Lee singled and scored on McCann's double to right field to hand the Braves a 1-0 lead. Matt Diaz followed with a single to center to put runners on first and third with nobody out.
Hamels struck out Alex Gonzalez swinging and got Melky Cabrera to hit into an inning-ending double play.
"I know I needed to be aggressive and get that first strike," Hamels said of the at-bat against Gonzalez. "I just kind of saw his approach and had a feeling he was going to be very aggressive because he wanted to get that run in. And in that situation you kind of slow it down a bit and throw it low. If he's going to be aggressive, hopefully he bangs it into the ground. I was able to throw it under the bat."
Hamels showed some of his conviction in the seventh. The Braves had a runner on first with two outs and Gonzalez, who doubled in the fifth, at the plate. Hamels worked a 1-2 count throwing a changeup and three fastballs. Carlos Ruiz called for a fastball or changeup, but Hamels shook him off until he got the pitch he liked.
Gonzalez grounded out to Placido Polanco to end the inning.
It was not a dramatic moment, but it is impossible to imagine Hamels throwing a curveball in that situation in the past.
"I have the confidence I can throw all four pitches for strikes at any time," he said. "I think that's something I've never had. I've had two pitches. To now have four, it makes it harder for them and obviously easier for me. But I think it makes it more fun when I can play that chess match and throw a few other audible calls in there to mess them up."
Hamels retired 19 of the final 22 batters he faced, which allowed the Phillies to come back to win on just five hits.
Braves right-hander Brandon Beachy, making the first start of his career, allowed a leadoff double in the second to Ryan Howard. Raul Ibanez grounded out to Lee, which moved Howard to third.
Howard scored to tie the game when Carlos Ruiz doubled to left field with two outs.
The Phils took a 3-1 lead in the fifth with a little help from Braves right fielder Jason Heyward. The Phillies had been hitting the ball hard against Beachy, but they had been hitting them at Braves fielders. Shane Victorino hit a line drive to right-center. Heyward pursued, but the ball deflected off his glove and kicked toward center.
"It knuckled," Heyward said. "He inside-outed it and it got in the wind. I got a great jump right off the bat with it. I was right there the whole way. I didn't take it lightly at all. I wanted to hurry up and get under it as fast as possible. The last few rotations there took it out of my reach."
Victorino cruised into third for a three-base error and scored when Placido Polanco grounded out to Gonzalez at shortstop. Chase Utley followed Polanco, singled up the middle, stole second and scampered to third on a throwing error from McCann. Braves manager Bobby Cox pulled Beachy for left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, who walked Howard and Jayson Werth to load the bases. Utley scored when Ibanez grounded out.
The big hits never came, but they got enough of the little ones.
They got plenty of pitching. Hamels pitched well and Lidge looked nasty in the ninth.
The Phillies' ace? He pitched Monday. He is pitching Tuesday and Wednesday, too.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.