Phillies off to fast start for a change

Steve Henson

PHILADELPHIA – Cole Hamels got the win and Brad Lidge (barely) notched the save, but give Trevor Hoffman an assist from 3,000 miles away.

Hoffman, the all-time saves leader thanks to a devastating change-up, taught Hamels the off-speed pitch when the future Philadelphia Phillies ace was growing up in San Diego. Not that Hoffman knew anything of his pupil.

"It was all watching him on TV and going to Padres' games," Hamels said.

These days, Hamels could conduct a graduate-level seminar on the fine points of the change-of-pace. It keyed a dominating performance in the Phillies' 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park. Hamels went eight innings, allowed two hits and struck out nine, mostly on the off-speed pitch that painted the outside corner against right-handed hitters and plummeted to the dirt as soon as it grazed the strike zone.

"[Hoffman] had a big impact on that pitch," Hamels said. "He would throw it so often that they knew it was coming and still couldn't hit it. The change of speed and the motion on the pitch makes it almost unhittable."

In the Brewers' clubhouse, the motion was seconded.

"He kept it down and was very deceptive," center fielder Mike Cameron said. "It's a great pitch, one of the best in the league."

Hamels, a Phillies first-round pick in 2002, learned the change-up after he broke his pitching arm when he was a junior at Rancho Bernardo High School. The injury was frighteningly similar to the break that ended the career of Dave Dravecky, yet it invigorated Hamels' development. He studied the pitch while rehabilitating and perfected the grip working with legendary pitching coach Tom House.

Suddenly Hamels went from a loose-armed, hard-throwing left-hander with potential to a polished pitcher with a devastating out pitch even before entering pro ball. No wonder the Phillies gave him a $2 million signing bonus. No wonder he was 29-15 the last two years, emerging as the team's stopper.

And no wonder the Brewers couldn't touch him. Hamels struck out three of the first four hitters he faced, all on change-ups. He retired the first 14 hitters before Corey Hart punched a single to right field. The only other blemish was a soft single by Craig Counsell in the sixth.

Hamels had thrown 101 pitches after eight innings, and manager Charlie Manuel went to Lidge, who was 41 for 41 in save opportunities during the regular season. The move nearly backfired. Lidge struck out the side, but he needed 35 pitches and gave up two hits, a walk and an unearned run.

"He fell behind guys, then was in a position where he had to throw the ball over the plate," Manuel said.

Lidge has needed 20 or more pitches to get through five of his last six innings, and even Manuel suggested it is only a matter of time before he falters.

"It's going to happen," he said. "He's not going to be perfect forever. You just hope it isn't soon."

The Phillies might not need Lidge on Thursday because taking a lead into the ninth inning will be difficult with CC Sabathia starting for the Brewers. It will be Sabathia's fourth start in a row on three days rest – each of them victories. Even Sabathia will have difficulty winning if his teammates play defense as shoddily as they did in the third inning Wednesday, when the Phillies scored all their runs.

Carlos Ruiz singled to open the inning, and Hamels' bunt was fumbled by third baseman Bill Hall, who would have been able to throw out Ruiz at second had he fielded the ball cleanly. Instead he threw to first, and second baseman Rickie Weeks dropped it for an error. Two outs later, Chase Utley knocked in both runners with a double off the glove of Cameron, who took a bad route to the ball in center field.

"The wind had been blowing in hard, but somehow or another it didn't cut that ball down as much as I thought," Cameron said.

Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo followed an intentional walk to Ryan Howard by walking the next two batters unintentionally, the last one forcing in Utley with the third run.

Hamels shook his head slowly watching Gallardo implode. One year ago in this park, it had been Hamels who walked three in an inning and surrendered three runs in a Game 1 NLDS loss to the Colorado Rockies. That experience – along with a change-up perfected long ago – helped him in this game.

"I learned you have to ramp down your emotions in the playoffs," he said. "You have to mellow out. I was able to relax, and it made all the difference."