Hamels transforms into a prime mover

PHILADELPHIA – All this time talking about the Yankees and Rays, the Rays and Yankees, the race for baseball supremacy, blah, blah, blah, and it turns out the game's most dangerous team is in the National League.

The 2010 Philadelphia Phillies are the volcano that lay dormant for so long it lulled the public into a false sense of security, then went kablooey, spat hot fire and left thankful any and all unscathed. The inferno into which the Atlanta Braves walked Monday was indeed unforgiving, Cole Hamels(notes) shutting them down in a 3-1 Phillies victory, only for the next two days to present them Roy Halladay(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes).

The Phillies are not baseball nonpareil because Halladay, at his Cy Young-deserving best, and Oswalt, an assassin since arriving from Houston, sit atop their rotation. Nor are they 29 games over .500 and marching toward home-field advantage throughout the playoffs only because their cavalcade of injuries seems to have slowed. What makes the Phillies the team to beat not just in the NL but all of the baseball is Hamels, whose transformation from last October begs the question: Autobot or Decepticon?

Because this certainly isn't the same pitcher who spent October questioning himself, and he's even better than the one who won the World Series MVP in 2008. A wholesale physical and mental evolution yielded Cole Hamels 2.0, the NL's top pitcher since the All-Star break.

"If I fail, it doesn't hurt as bad anymore," Hamels said after pitching eight innings and allowing one run to bring his ERA to 2.93, the first time it has been below 3.00 since May 20, 2008. "I think that's where I am. You don't want to fail, first and foremost, and it's accepting the failure when you do. I know how to accept the failure, and the world didn't end.

"It takes a lot of courage to be able to get back up there when things didn't go right and to learn from it and to go out and be good."

For a baseball player, Hamels is brutally honest. He owns his faults and lauds his accomplishments. He doesn't just wear his emotions on his sleeve. He stitches the whole shirt out of them. And that led him to cavernous depths last October, when Hamels said he wanted the season to end in the middle of a World Series the Phillies lost to the Yankees.

Hamels spent the offseason tinkering with a new pitch, a cut fastball, and refining another, his curveball. Both, it turned out, were weapons he could throw for strikes. The cutter was a specialty of Cliff Lee(notes), the left-hander who pitched the Phillies to the World Series last year only to get traded this offseason, a move that infuriated fans who figured a Halladay-Lee combination would be unstoppable. Nowhere in the conversation was Hamels, still only 26. He was a liability, not an ace.

Now, Lee is but a distant memory. Fond? Of course. Wanting? Yearning? Needing? Not anymore.

"Cliff was unbelievable for us last year," closer Brad Lidge(notes) said, "but at the same time, we get Halladay, we get Oswalt and now Cole is pitching like Cliff was.

"Cole's throwing as well as he ever has. He knew he needed to have some more pitches. But it's tough to work two new pitches in. Get the control, figure out where you need to throw them."

Once Hamels figured them out at the beginning of the second half, he went from a left-hander with a good fastball and great changeup to a four-pitch menace, the likes of which few exist. Along with them came the confidence he lost last year. This was a classic chicken-and-egg situation: The pitches may have rescued Hamels' faith, sure, but the fortitude to throw them came from deep within.

"He used to fight himself," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.

He smirked.

"That was last year."

And this year offers a Phillies team better equipped than the last two. Even with Jimmy Rollins'(notes) hamstring barking, they can go bat for bat with the American League mashers: Shane Victorino(notes), Placido Polanco(notes), Chase Utley(notes), Ryan Howard(notes), Jayson Werth(notes), Raul Ibanez(notes), Carlos Ruiz(notes). Though not his dominant self over the last five starts, Halladay might be the one pitcher a manager would want to start a playoff game, which is amazing considering this will be his first postseason after more than a decade in Toronto purgatory. The Phillies have won the last nine games Oswalt started, and his ERA is 1.55 over that span.

No team can compete with the Phillies' rotation. Not the Yankees, with uncertainty beyond CC Sabathia(notes) and Andy Pettitte(notes), nor the Rays, with David Price(notes) and question marks galore – not even San Francisco, if it can sneak past Atlanta for the NL wild card. This Phillies' team is built on its starting pitching depth, and it keeps Hamels from bowing to the burden. As ready as he looked to inherit the title of ace after the '08 World Series, he wasn't. He still isn't. He might not ever be. Which makes Halladay's presence through 2012 so paramount.

"It puts you where you're not as stressed," Hamels said. "You know you don't have to be that guy. You don't have to carry the whole team on your back. When you have one big-time pitcher on your team, guys kind of look at them to be that guy that's always going to win, that's always going to get them out of the rut, that's always going to have a huge game."

Except Hamels has been that guy, especially over his last five starts, in which he has pitched 36 2/3 innings, allowed two runs and posted a 37-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Phillies, teetering near .500 on July 21, are 42-15 since. They sit 1½ games behind the Yankees for the best record in baseball. Barring a meltdown – and with the three aces each capable of going three more times on full rest, it ain't happening – they will win the NL running away.

Amid the bubbly spray will stand Cole Hamels, the new Cole Hamels, yes, but still with traces of old, like that honesty.

"Sometimes," he said, "I surprise myself."

Everyone else, too.