"You give Cole a three-run cushion, it's awful tough," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "He's tough to score on regardless. When you let him get that far out in front of you, it's a lot of pressure on the offense to try to string things together, because he doesn't give up too many homers. Tonight, he didn't give up many singles either."
Hamels surrendered five singles and did not allow a baserunner to advance to second base. The veteran left-hander faced the minimum number of batters through the first six innings and just two more than the minimum in his 111-pitch effort. The Braves have been the victims in two of his five shutouts.
This was certainly much different than the performance provided by Hamels on July 27 in Atlanta. During that game, he issued a career-high six walks and needed 109 pitches to complete five innings.
"I just pitched against them two starts ago, they're pretty familiar with what I'm doing, so it's just trying to execute," said Hamels, who has seen the Phillies win 15 of the past 23 games that he has started against the Braves.
While losing for just the third time in their past 14 games, the Braves were unable to beat the Phillies for an eighth consecutive time. Their seven-game winning streak against the Phils extended back to July 6, when Howard played his first game after missing the season's first three months while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
Howard made his presence known when he took advantage of the elevated slider Mike Minor threw him with just one out in the first inning. He drilled the pitch over the left-center-field wall for a two-run, opposite-field home run that capped the end of a rough first inning for the Braves' young starting pitcher.
"I felt like the last time we had faced them, I threw him a lot of fastballs and sliders away," Minor said. "It was kind of like he was guessing the whole time. Even if I threw one over the plate, he either fouled it off or didn't get a good read on it at our place. Obviously, he was looking for that one. He stayed back and hit it the other way."
For the first time in his career, Howard entered this game having not homered in 11 straight games against the Braves. But the 38 home runs he has hit against Atlanta remains the most he has hit against any Major League club.
Minor allowed consecutive doubles to begin his outing and then surrendered his 23rd homer of the season. But after being victimized by Howard's power, he did not allow another run and completed seven innings. His strong finish impressed his teammates and preserved some of the optimism he had created while posting a 1.74 ERA and limiting opponents to a .170 batting average in his five previous starts.
"If you watched the pitch location, I really didn't have a lot tonight," Minor said. "I just tried to battle. I went 2-0 on a lot of guys. Leadoff batters were on base it seemed like every inning. I walked two guys, but it seemed like I walked a lot more because I was behind [in the count] all night."
Hamels was in total control from the start of the game. The closest the Braves came to putting a runner on second base came in the fifth inning, when Brian McCann made the unwise decision to attempt to stretch a two-out single into a double. Left fielder Domonic Brown's throw easily beat him to the bag.
After Jones singled to begin the second inning, Hamels escaped unscathed by getting McCann to ground into a double play. Hamels also got Reed Johnson to ground into a double play after Freddie Freeman opened the eighth inning with a single.
"We like our chances as an offense if our pitcher can give us a time through the order to see what the guy's got and to keep us in the game," Jones said. "After they get three in the first, it's a little demoralizing knowing that you've got to figure out some way to get on Cole with a bigger-than-average [strike] zone. It just wasn't in the cards tonight."