For Cole Hamels, What a Difference A Year Makes

Plus: More details on the curious case of Michael Vick's arrival time for yesterday's game

When Texas dispatches Clifton Lee to the mound this evening in Yankee Stadium, it will no doubt have a sense of calm confidence, thanks to Lee’s tremendous post-season success rate, not to mention his six-hit, 10-strikeout, zero-walk, complete-game win over the Yankees in last year’s World Series opener. There is no better person to pitch the third game of a deadlocked League Championship Series, and it will be fascinating to see if Lee can continue his career post-season perfection (6-0), not to mention his 2010 dominance (2-0, 1.13 ERA, 21 strikeouts, 0 walks).

A day later, about 3,000 miles to the west, another ace pitcher takes the mound hoping to change the course of a tied series. And, unlike last year, when Cole Hamels really couldn’t be counted on for anything in the post-season — except maybe some histrionics when things didn’t go his way — his team’s fans should have a similar sense of security. After spending 2009 adrift amidst a sea of problems, some his making some not, Hamels has become a bona fide ace again, and the Phillies are damn lucky to have him available for Tuesday afternoon’s crucial matchup. [SIGNUP]

When the 2009 season ended, there were many who figured Hamels belonged exactly where he will be Tuesday afternoon. He was a third starter, incapable of carrying the mail, despite a glorious 2008 post-season that included MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series. Next to Lee, who was downright dominant last year, Hamels looked like the little brother, still learning how to handle big situations and behaving at times like a spoiled kid. Most Phillies fans were ecstatic when the team acquired Roy Halladay, because it brought a grown-up to town and allowed Hamels to retreat to the role of second banana, where his periodic bad moods and inconsistency would be less damaging.

To his credit, Hamels recognized he needed to change some things. He admitted he hadn’t prepared well after 2008, falling prey instead to the celebrity culture that engulfed him after the Phillies’ world title. He also understood that his inability to overcome teammates’ gaffes, umpires’ calls or the baseball gods’ caprice had to change also.

After an early stutter, Hamels became the same overpowering pitcher he had been in 2008. From early July on, he was consistently effective. Better yet, he didn’t grouse about a lack of run support, rebounded strongly from the few bad outings he had and generally looked like the same reliable pitcher who had carried the Phils to the championship in ’08. As painful as 2009 may have been for Hamels and the Phillies, it may well have saved a talented pitcher’s career.

Were this last October, Phils fans would look at a couple numbers leading up to Tuesday’s game and lose heart. Hamels has a mediocre 4.27 ERA in career daytime starts. (First pitch is 1:19 p.m. PDT.) The Giants tagged him for five earned in just five innings pitched back in August and scored four in six back in April. And Hamels struggled considerably against SF’s righthanded hitters, giving up 14 of his 16 hits to them this year, big reasons to expect Aaron Rowand and Pablo Sandoval in the lineup Tuesday.

None of this matters, because Hamels no longer falls victim to stats, trends or much else. It’s too early to say he has reverted to 2008 form, but his cool dispatching of Cincinnati in last Sunday’s NLDS deciding game is pretty compelling evidence that Hamels is all the way back.

The good news, after Sunday night, is the Phillies appear to be also. Jimmy Rollins three-run double was a great sign, but so was the team’s ability — and willingness — to create some runs through aggressive baserunning (a double steal in the seventh?) and even bunting. The Phils seemed to recognize that hitting home runs is not enough in the post-season. Successful teams use every weapon at their disposal. So, while Roy Oswalt was superb over eight three-hit innings, his teammates were playing all-out baseball and enjoying the result.

The combination of an inspired offense and a great pitching staff is tough to beat. Last year, the Phils had one but not the other – outside of Lee. Thanks to Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, 2009’s post-season mound instability is long forgotten. Tuesday in San Francisco, Hamels gets his chance to show just how far he has come.

He may not be Cliff Lee.

He may be better.

* * *

After the Eagles’ 31-17 win over Atlanta, Andy Reid channeled Gene Kelly when media members asked about Michael Vick’s late arrival at Lincoln Financial Field, refusing to say anything other than he gave the QB permission to arrive less than an hour before kickoff. While Reid made it sound like it was no big deal, others around the league weren’t so sure.

Here is the transcript of a text “interview” with an NFC executive. (Please excuse the shoddy grammar; time constraints — I was hosting the 97.5 Eagles Pre-Game Show at the time — and character limitations mandated the shorthand communications.):

Me: Vick didn’t show up until 12:15 for a 1 p.m. game. He’s third QB today and Eagles say he didn’t have to be there until then. Is that possible?

NFC Exec: No. League has a two-hour before-game policy. Maybe he had a personal issue.

Me: You mean all players have to be there two hours before the game?

NFC Exec: That is my understanding.

Here’s a second transcript, this time with an AFC executive

Me: Michael Vick didn’t show up until 12:15 for a 1 p.m. game. Eagles say he didn’t have to be there until then as a third QB. Is that possible?

AFC Exec: No. It’s total B.S.

Since we heard nothing about a personal issue, it seems as if something’s going on here. Perhaps Vick was upset he was made the third quarterback for the game and didn’t come to the stadium on time. Maybe Reid just wanted to give him a chance to sleep in and enjoy the breakfast buffet at the team hotel. In a season of craziness, this is just another issue for the shrink.

• The round ball started bouncing in earnest this weekend at area colleges. Hard to believe we’re fewer than five months from the start of March Madness. That’s beautiful.
• Please don’t fire Wade Phillips, Jerry. We like him as coach of the Cowboys. Something more to like: Since the NFL expanded its playoff format in 1990, only five percent of the teams who have begun the year 1-4 have made the post-season.
• T-minus nine days until the Sixers’ opener, and I’m sticking by my prediction that Doug Collins will be worth 14 more wins for the team. Given the team’s play during its exhibition games, I’m displaying some serious blind faith.