PHILADELPHIA -- Perhaps it's fitting that Cole Hamels can hand the Phillies their second consecutive pennant.
After arriving on the national stage in just his second full Major League season -- winning the 2008 National League Championship Series and World Series MVP Awards -- Hamels spent 2009 searching for answers. He battled injuries early, inconsistency throughout and finished 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA.
Hamels awaited the blank slate that comes with October, but there, too, he has not been sharp, allowing eight earned runs in 10 1/3 postseason innings (6.97 ERA).
But as he faces the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLCS on Wednesday, when the Phillies can avoid another cross-country flight and become the first team since the 1995-96 Braves to win consecutive NL titles, Hamels won't be drawing on last season's experiences.
Loves to face: Pedro Feliz, 2-for-12, 3 SO
Hates to face: Raul Ibanez, 9-for-31, 2 HR
Loves to face: Andre Ethier, 4-for-19, 5 SO Hates to face: Manny Ramirez, 6-for-16, 2 HR
Why he'll win: Pitching lights out in playoffs
Why he'll win: Career 3.43 ERA at Citizens Bank Park lowest of any pitcher (100 IP min.)
Pitcher beware: Rude reception likely in Philly
Pitcher beware: Allowed four runs in 5.1 IP in Game 1
Bottom line: Dodgers' best pitcher right now
Bottom line: Usually pitches well at home and against L.A.
"It's a new year -- I've gone through different and new struggles, different successes," Hamels said on Tuesday. "I think when you start putting those thoughts in your head, you put more added pressure, because last year in those same situations, I wasn't thinking about that."
Only two teams have squandered a 3-1 lead in NLCS history -- the 1996 Cardinals (to the Braves) and the 2003 Cubs (to the Marlins).
Hamels, just 25, pitched well in Los Angeles in Game 1 before encountering trouble in the fifth. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley were unable to complete a routine double play, which should have ended the inning.
Instead, Hamels was rattled, and three pitches later, he allowed a three-run home run to Manny Ramirez. The lefty notched the win, but he allowed four runs in 5 1/3 innings.
The Phillies certainly believe in their one-time bona-fide ace.
"First of all, winning the game is the No. 1 priority, and if Hamels wins 10-9 or if he wins 2-1 or if he wins 1-0 -- I mean, Hamels can pitch," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
"I don't have to sit here and reminisce about is he going to pitch good or is he going to pitch bad or what is he going to do. Cole Hamels can just flat-out pitch."
Hamels can also flat-out pitch against the Dodgers. Even after the Game 1 hiccup, he is 4-1 with a 2.19 ERA in seven career starts against Los Angeles, including the postseason. On June 4, he tossed a five-hit shutout, striking out five and needing just 97 pitches for the complete-game effort.
But that was the problem with Hamels' season. He scattered gems like that amid more middling games and a few clunkers, often aided by a big inning like in Game 1. He thought everything clicked in late August, when he changed his mental approach to put less pressure on himself. Yet over his final six regular-season starts, he went 2-4 with a 4.58 ERA, so something was still missing.
For Game 5, Hamels is trying to work more efficiently by getting the Dodgers to put the ball in play earlier in at-bats and by retiring them more quickly when he gets into favorable counts. That way, he said, he can pitch deeper into the ballgame. He threw 106 pitches, or roughly 20 per inning, in Game 1.
"Every time I've made a mistake, it's really hurt me," Hamels said. "Baseball is a hard game, but you can't let it get to you. You have to keep on going out there and fighting until the end."
Hamels can bring that end nearer. The Phillies know the type of performances that he can churn out in October; one more, and they will have a week to await the American League champion in the Fall Classic.
"Any time you hand him the ball," Manuel said, "I think he's capable of going out there and shutting the other team out."
David Gurian-Peck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.