Hamels the strong link in Phils' rotation

Bodley: Hamels the strong link in Phils' rotation

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies have 19-game winner Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in the Major Leagues. Then there's Roy Oswalt, the former Houston gunslinger, who's 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA since coming onboard on July 31.

Completing the finest trio of starting pitchers for any team in eons is lefty Cole Hamels.

Ah, yes -- 26-year-old Cole Hamels, the baby of the group.

I believe that Hamels is the strong link that ties this outstanding threesome together, making it far more intimidating than an awesome one-two punch. He makes a huge difference.

Opponents may fear Halladay and Oswalt, but before they can catch their breath, they have to cope with Hamels. It doesn't get much better than this -- or worse, depending on which side of the fence you're on.

That was never more evident than on Monday night, as Hamels and the Phillies stymied the Braves, 3-1, in the first of a crucial three-game showdown at Citizens Bank Park. It was the Phillies' eighth consecutive win and 12th in 13 games.

They can smell their fourth consecutive National League East title.

Hamels was magnificent. He allowed just six hits and one run and struck out six during eight innings. He's 12-10 with a 2.93 ERA this season, and 6-3 with a 1.74 ERA in his last 14 starts. He was virtually unhittable.

It gets better: He's won a career-best five consecutive starts, with a 0.68 ERA during that span. He's allowed one run or none in 13 of his 31 starts and in 10 of his last 14 outings.

Monday's victory, cheered by the 118th consecutive sellout home crowd, pushed the Phillies four games up on second-place Atlanta in the division with 11 to play.

On Tuesday night the Braves must cope with Halladay, then Oswalt the day after.

"This year I've focused on making every pitch count," said Hamels after his six-strikeout performance. "The fear of failure is what drives you, keeps you focused."

After being named the MVP after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, Hamels struggled last season. He went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA, and he didn't get out of the fifth inning in his only World Series start against the Yankees.

"To me he shows he's more focused on the game," said manager Charlie Manuel. "He's focused on getting the hitter out and making pitches. Before he had high expectations of himself. He used to fight himself, but that was last year."

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was so convinced Hamels would rebound in 2010 that he made the controversial trade that sent left-hander Cliff Lee to Seattle.

Fans still long for Lee, but as the Phillies move toward their fourth consecutive division title, Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels are forcing them to turn the page on that issue.

Ask Manuel which pitcher he considers his ace, and he blurts, "Whoever pitches good on that night. We have some good pitchers. To say which one is the ace ... I like all three of our top ones."

Halladay's credentials and success have been an inspiration in the Phillies' clubhouse. That has helped Hamels, and with Oswalt's arrival, the pitchers feed off one another and push another.

"I think in some ways they do that," said Manuel. "They talk to each other a lot. It definitely helps. Notice them sitting on the bench, our starters sitting there together. They're always talking about the game and pitching, wanting to do well. They two guys [Halladay and Oswalt] we brought over here definitely want to win and go to the World Series. That's a big plus."

Hamels said that having Halladay and Oswalt on the staff "puts you in a situation where you are not as stressed. When you have one big-time pitcher on a team, guys look at him as the guy who's always going to win, always have a huge game. When you have a couple other guys of that caliber, you don't stress out as much. You just go out and try to be yourself."

To Hamels, "When games start to matter a little bit more, mistakes become even more costly. I think I understand that more now. If you end up walking a guy, what's the worst that can happen? The guy gets on, and you try to get the next one out."

The Braves scored their only run in the second inning, when Derrek Lee led off with a single and scored on Brian McCann's scorching double down the right-field line.

McCann advanced to third on Matt Diaz's single, and it was then that Hamels was at his best, demonstrating his ability to shrug off the possibility of a disastrous inning.

On a 1-2 count, he struck out Alex Gonzalez, then got Melky Cabrera to ground into a double play.

For Hamels, the strikeout was the key.

"I had a feeling with guys on base they were going to be aggressive," he said. "I was trying to play into that scenario where I slowed it down a bit, and then sped it up at the end. I was able to get the strikeout on a guy who's really been good."

Hamels said that he was well aware the pitcher was up after Cabrera, "and I made the right pitch. He hit it to one of our guys, and they turned the double play.

"Double plays are huge, especially with a guy on third base. The Braves are tough. If you can get them to hit the type of pitch you want and hit it to your defense, it's huge."

Ask Hamels the difference in his last five starts, and he says it's "simply making the right pitches at the right time. I am staying down in the zone and knowing when to go up in the zone. Keeping the batters off-balance has been a key. I've had a couple of games where I've just narrowed my focus and made pitches and tried not to make mistakes.

"What's hurt me is having a batter in the right situation but then [making] a mistake -- I leave the pitch out over the plate, and they have capitalized on it."

Somebody asked Hamels if Monday night's contest had the feel of a postseason game.

"No," he said sternly.

Somehow I didn't believe him.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.