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Hamels' big mistake was a pitch to Pettitte

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

PHILADELPHIA – Probably, given another chance, Cole Hamels(notes) would not throw the curveball – a pitch he'd rank last among his three pitches and on many nights has to be talked into throwing – to Andy Pettitte(notes).

That's about where it all started to go wrong for him Saturday night, when one bad idea became one fluke base hit, leading to a few runs and a regrettable loss and now Joe Blanton(notes) is matched up against CC Sabathia(notes) and, well, you can see where this appears to be heading.

"I don't know," Hamels said. "Sometimes you can't do anything right."

No, one minute you're flipping a curveball at an inexpert batter for a cheap strike one and the next you're picking up the pieces of another start gone wrong. Then the mind leaps, because Hamels' Philadelphia Phillies had worked so hard for that win in New York, which seemed to make it all right to pitch Cliff Lee(notes) on regular rest, given they were playing from ahead.

Because Lee is the best pitcher on the planet at the moment, so why screw with his routine, right? He'd never gone on three days' rest before, so why risk it, right?

Sounded good at the time, and looked OK after four innings of a damp, misty night. Hamels was in the strike zone with his fastball and under New York Yankees bats with his changeup. Alex Rodriguez(notes) had clattered a fastball off a TV camera for a couple runs in the fourth, but the Phillies were onto Pettitte, and the World Series had come to life at Citizens Bank Park. The crowd was cranked up, so was Pettitte's pitch count, and all Hamels had to do was get through another inning or so. Charlie Manuel didn't need him to be MVP again, just competent, and the Phillies were going to survive this decision to save Lee for Game 5, whether they made it or Lee did.

But Hamels is a guy who could be talked into anything right now. So when Pettitte, who hits just like a pitcher, came up in the fifth inning with Nick Swisher(notes) at second base, one out and the Phillies ahead 3-2, a curveball surely sounded brilliant to Hamels. Again, it didn't seem to matter that his fastball had good life and was going where he aimed it. He'd shifted into curveball mode against Swisher, struck out Melky Cabrera(notes) by setting him up with fastballs and finishing him with a changeup, and then faced Pettitte, who in his entire career had eight hits against left-handed pitchers.

Hamels decided Pettitte would be bunting. He decided to get Pettitte to pop up that bunt, even though a bunt probably would result in the second out of the inning and, really, whether Swisher was at second or third at that point was almost insignificant. The threat was minimal, almost non-existent. So Hamels threw the curveball. Worst case, Hamels thought, Pettitte is not bunting and he gets ahead in the count.

"Sometimes," Hamels said later, "I get a little deep into it."

He cares so much about this, of course. After pitching himself into an elite class of aces last season – a wonderful regular season followed by a dominant postseason and a World Series championship – Hamels discovered the frustration of professional inconsistency. The regular season was, by his standards, poor. The playoffs have been worse. In four postseason starts he's pitched into the sixth inning once and given up 16 runs in 19 innings.

So, of course Pettitte wasn't bunting. Of course he swung. Of course the ball landed softly in the outfield, Swisher touching home plate to tie the score, setting fire to the inning, turning series momentum back toward the Yankees. Of course it did.

"Well, first of all, [with] runners in scoring position I'm going to be a little bit more aggressive," Pettitte said, which didn't sound at all like he'd be bunting or taking, which were Hamels' first two guesses.

"I wasn't taking," Pettitte said.

There you go.

"I just saw a ball up in the zone," Pettitte said, "so I'm not trying to hit a home run, I'm trying to slap the ball around, and fortunately enough I got a ball up in the zone and I was able to slap it back up the middle."

It came in at 73 mph, and went out with a tiny bit of hope.

Afterward, Hamels folded his arms across his chest. He hates this. He'd love another shot, a Game 7 if the Phillies can hold on that long, though Manuel was waffling in the press conference room even as Hamels was confirming he'd like the ball again.

Otherwise, Hamels said of this miserable '09, "I can't wait for it to end. It's been mentally draining."

Soon enough. First though, the inning had to end, and it didn't until the Yankees were ahead, 5-3. And then the game had to end, and it didn't until Mariano Rivera(notes) finished the ninth for an 8-5 win. And then the series has to end, which the Yankees lead, two games to one. Defending champions, the Phillies hadn't trailed in five consecutive postseason series.

Now, of all times, they could use their ace. Unfortunately for them, while the entire Yankees' rotation is volunteering to pitch when needed, Lee only pitches on four days' rest. If that becomes a difference in the series, then so too will be Hamels' start in Game 3, which should have gone differently.