LOS ANGELES – The Philadelphia Phillies weren't ever going to have this until they could stand on the mound this time of year and chase zeroes with more zeroes, until they could back up an ace with more big arms, until they could pitch all the way through the ninth inning.
Oh, the Phillies would hit. And they'd accumulate MVP trophies. And they'd shrink that already miniature ballpark.
But it wouldn't ever mean anything, not when their rallies were hounded by the other lineups' rallies all the way to exhaustion, and all the way into October.
Cole Hamels grew up and Jamie Moyer stayed just young enough, just long enough. Brett Myers figured out the first inning again, and Brad Lidge loved the ninth inning again, and Ryan Madson gave him plenty of them.
At the end of a regular season in which the pitching staff shaved 141 runs from the previous season, through two playoff rounds during which it allowed 29 runs in nine games (the Colorado Rockies scored 16 in three division series games last October), the Phillies stood Wednesday night under a full moon having won their first National League pennant in 15 years, with a chance to win their first World Series in 28.
The Phillies – not the Dodgers – had the better pitchers.
In seven innings against a desperate Los Angeles Dodgers lineup in Game 5, Hamels allowed a solo home run to Manny Ramirez in the 5-1 victory. No shame in that. In fact, in 14 NLCS innings, Hamels gave up three runs. Ramirez drove in two of them. The Dodgers had only one of Ramirez, and he did not come to the plate with a runner on base in the clincher because Hamels was that good, again.
Then, as if drawn up by GM Pat Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel themselves, Hamels handed the ball to Madson, who handed it to Lidge, and then they all hugged and laughed as Dodger Stadium went quiet and the people went home. The Phillies had opened the season expecting to contend because they would score runs. They'll finish it in late October because they pitched, too.
"This year's been different from the years past," said Pat Burrell, who in nine seasons had seen his share of fifth-inning uphill battles. "I don't think the starting pitching has gotten enough credit for what they've done. We'd hit. We'd score runs. But none of that matters if you don't have the starting pitching. When they really needed to make a pitch, they made it."
Well, often enough anyway.
Ultimately, the season will show they won the NL East from the New York Mets and Johan Santana, winning twice in five Santana starts. They won the division series against the Milwaukee Brewers and CC Sabathia, winning Sabathia's only start. And, in the NLCS, they won both starts by postseason maven Derek Lowe. They have beaten aces and hangers-on, not because their offense pounded them, but because their pitching opened the game for the big hit, the big inning.
"Well," said Gillick, whose red shirt was spattered in champagne, "we got Hamels, who's getting better all the time. The other thing, we got a lot of mileage out of Moyer this year. He threw the ball like a younger man, with more consistency than he had in a long time. I thought, even though the one guy is 45 years old, with Hamels, Myers and Moyer, on a given night we can compete with anyone. And I'll match Hamels up against anyone."
As the Dodgers imploded, Hamels got outs. Chad Billingsley, who has all of the stuff Hamels has and is 24 like Hamels, didn't get out of the third inning for the second time in the series. The Dodgers view him as a developing ace. Hamels beat him there, because he doesn't fear the strike zone, and doesn't fear contact. In 2 2/3 innings, Billingsley had four strikeouts, one fewer than Hamels had in seven. But Hamels worked the Dodgers' bats from the handles to the ends of the barrels. Over two games against him, the Dodgers had 11 plate appearances with runners in scoring position and had one hit, none in their last 10.
"They wouldn't be in this position if they didn't have some great arms," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. "They pitched well and came up with some huge base hits. That's a good lineup, a lot of weapons in that lineup."
Now they can put them to use.
Afterward, Hamels gripped the MVP trophy with two hands and called it, "Something surreal." Maybe he meant the trophy. Probably he meant the moment, how the Phillies went from a one-dimensional ballclub to a World Series qualifier, how they advanced with only occasional help from the likes of Howard (two RBIs) and Rollins (.143 batting average). But, they caught the ball when the Dodgers didn't, and they pitched to the biggest moments.
Hamels gestured toward a clubhouse awash in celebration. He talked about Myers, who'd had to relearn the starter's rhythm in the minor leagues. He fawned over Moyer, who lost big in two postseason starts, but, Hamels said, "He kind of tutored us."
"Now," Hamels said, "all we have to do is go out there and perform."
By mid-October, they'd made it look easy. Maybe it was a soft trip. The Brewers and the Dodgers were not what the Tampa Bay Rays – or, perhaps, the Boston Red Sox – will be. But, given what the soft National League stood in front of them, the Phillies won like they should have. And, for a change, when the game was about pitching, the Phillies were better at it.
It's why they were here. It's why they danced under that full moon Wednesday night.
Burrell smiled. He'd seen a lot of games end the other way.
"This," he said, "it's a helluva feeling."