PHILADELPHIA – Getting flattened by the Colorado Rockies in three games a year ago has set the Philadelphia Phillies up for some steamrollering of their own. They feel wiser, in the way a guy who gets fleeced at the car dealership never lets it happen again, the way a kid who gets sucker-punched in the schoolyard throws the first blow next chance he gets.
The Milwaukee Brewers, meanwhile, are glad to be here, biding time today behind a starter, Yovani Gallardo, who posted the always-encouraging 0-0 regular-season record, biding time until Thursday's game when they fully expect CC Sabathia to again throw nine innings and 130 pitches and win on short rest, sending this National League Division Series to Wisconsin even.
All of which makes today's game crucial for the Phillies. They can't afford to be down a game when Sabathia takes the mound.
Good thing they are braced for the fight.
Left-handed ace Cole Hamels is starting on regular rest, and like most of his teammates, Hamels has a nightmarish postseason introduction from which to draw strength. He started Game 1 against the Rockies last year and gave up three runs in the second, allowing a triple by Todd Helton and double by Garrett Atkins to balloon into a big inning. Hamels nearly melted down when he walked Troy Tulowitzki with the bases loaded, forcing in the third run of the inning. But he pitched out of the jam, settled down with four scoreless innings, yet the Phillies lost 4-2 and never rebounded.
Deep breath. Don't ever let it happen again.
"I have playoff experience checked off next to my name," Hamels said. "I don't know, for some odd reason, being able to experience something for the very first time, there's a lot of nerves, just because of the unexpected. And so you just have to really go out there and I guess treat it as something that's not as foreign as it was last year."
Gallardo is the unexpected personified; he'll be the first pitcher since Virgil Trucks in 1945 to start a playoff game after having no regular-season decisions. The Brewers' right-hander had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee just before spring training, pitched well in four starts early on before hurting his right knee while trying to hurdle a baserunner and missed the rest of the season. Acting manager Dale Sveum and Brewers players say Gallardo has poise beyond his 22 years, but that impression is based solely on last year's 20 appearances, when he was 9-5 with a 3.67 ERA.
Sveum even said Gallardo could throw a complete game, which might be telling of the fear the Brewers have of their bullpen.
"I hope I can go nine," Gallardo said. "That's what I'm going to try for."
That's a tall order against a Phillies lineup bloodied by mostly inexperienced Rockies pitchers a year ago. The Phillies batted .172 in the series, striking out 26 times.
And what important life lessons did the boys take away from that particularly humbling experience?
"We were too aggressive, if there is such a thing," second baseman Chase Utley said. "The Rockies had a couple young pitchers who were just wild enough to beat you. They'd fall behind in the count and we'd swing from our heels at fastballs that would have been ball three or ball four."
Added first baseman Ryan Howard, the Phillies' hottest hitter with a .352 average, 11 home runs and 32 RBIs in September: "We weren't nervous last year, we were keyed up. We were so intent on driving the ball that we might not have been as selective as we should have been."
So patience will be key against Gallardo, whose stuff is similar to the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez, the Game 3 winner last year. Getting to the Brewers' bullpen as early as possible is the goal. Once the game is turned over to relievers, the Phillies should have a sizable advantage. They had only 15 blown saves – fewest in the NL – while the Brewers had 26. And when it comes to closers, the Phillies' Brad Lidge was 41 for 41 while the Brewers' Salomon Torres was thrust into the role in June after Eric Gagne couldn't handle it. Torres pitched credibly, notching 28 saves while blowing seven, but it seems that everyone in the dugout draws a breath and holds it every time he takes the mound.
For his part, Torres leaned on the postseason-as-a-new-season logic.
"They can say our bullpen is weaker, but to jump to any conclusion, you never know what will happen in a baseball game from day to day," he said.
That's also the only way the Brewers can dismiss getting swept in four games here from Sept. 11-14, a series that jump-started the Phillies' run to the NL East title and nearly derailed the Brewers. Philadelphia outscored Milwaukee 26-10 in the four games.
"The end of that series was about as low as we got as a team," Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said. "But we responded well to adversity and played much better down the stretch. I think last week for us was basically a playoff atmosphere."
Taking the lumps and coming back stronger. Sounds similar to the Phillies' approach. Two teams that believe they are better off for having struggled, failed and survived.