PHILADELPHIA – Cole Hamels arrived at the point of the game Tuesday night where so many times this season things had unraveled for him and the Phillies.
This time Hamels pitched like the mentally tough ace he’s supposed to be and provided one of the most dramatic moments of the 2013 season.
Hamels allowed one run in eight innings as the Phillies beat the Washington Nationals 4-2 before 33,502 fans at Citizens Bank Park. Hamels ERA dropped from 4.38 to 4.17. Hamels (4-11) has won two straight starts.
“I haven’t been able to get the job done early on,” he said. “I have to take it up a notch. From here on out, I’m trying to keep it going and push it to the highest level I can.”
The Phillies (45-46) are now 4-1 on this pivotal 10-game homestand that will go a long way toward determining if they are legitimate playoff contenders. They are 7.5 games back of the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
Hamels faced a moment of crisis in the top of the eighth inning with the Phillies ahead three runs.
Washington loaded the bases with one out and it was barely Hamels fault.
Scott Hairston reached on an infield single. Ian Desmond followed with a single when Phillies right fielder John Mayberry Jr. – a defensive replacement – misjudged a fly ball. Hamels then walked Bryce Harper to load the bases.
It appeared that Hamels perplexing season was about to continue. At times, his teammates have let him down. Other times, Hamels has been his own biggest problem.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel walked to the mound. The Phillies infield gathered around Hamels. Third baseman Michael Young didn’t even look at the bullpen.
“It was Cole’s game,” Young said.
Hamels joked that Manuel just wanted to give him a mental breather. Words were kept to a minimum.
“I told him, ‘I’m not out here to take you out. I came out here to look at you,’ ” Manuel said.
“You got him?” Manuel asked.
“I got him,” Hamels answered.
Manuel left the mound. Hamels stayed. The crowd roared.
Hamels struck out the next hitter - Ryan Zimmerman - on a 93 mph fastball for the second out.
Former Phillie turned Citizens Bank Park villain Jayson Werth was next to the plate. Werth had a hit a home run off Hamels into the left center field stands in the second inning.
“He and I were playing a guessing game the whole game,” Hamels said. “He definitely got me in that first at-bat. I’ve seen him a ton. He’s seen me a ton. It’s a serious chess match. He’s a great hitter.”
In the eighth inning with the crowd on its feet, Werth looked at Hamels’ first two pitches for strikes. He fouled off the next pitch and then took three straight balls. The crowd groaned with each pitch that missed the plate.
Werth then lined pitch No. 110 from Hamels to center field for the final out. Ben Revere caught the ball just in front of the warning track.
“It was a big-time battle,” Manuel said. “That’s what baseball is all about. Werth came close but no cigar.”
The fans cheered like it was October. It was exciting as Philadelphia baseball has been all season.
“The fans – that was something we haven’t seen all year,” Hamels said. “That was the most exciting eighth inning I’ve had in a long time. It seemed like there were 60,000 fans. That was awesome.”
The Phillies signed the 29-year-old Hamels to a six-year, $144 million contract last summer. The pitcher has struggled at times this season. He seemed to always pitch just well enough to lose.
Hamels was the first Phillies pitcher to lose 11 games before the month of July since 1937. He was the first Phillies pitcher to lose nine games before the month of June since 1891.
Before Tuesday, the Phillies were 4-14 in Hamels' 18 starts with six of those defeats coming by one run.
Tuesday was arguably Hamels most important start of the season.
The Phillies beat the Nationals 3-2 Monday night. A win Tuesday and Philadelphia would have a reasonable chance to win the four-game series, especially with Cliff Lee (10-2, 2.73 ERA) starting today.
The Phillies also appeared to have the pitching edge Tuesday. The Nationals started Taylor Jordan, a talented 24-year-old prospect but a rookie making just his third career start.
Hamels needed to pitch well and deep into the game. The Phillies bullpen began the night with a 4.63 ERA – worst in the National League. Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon was probably unavailable because he had pitched three of the last four days.
Hamels responded with his best effort of the season.
Some Phillies fans have argued this season that Hamels has the paycheck of ace pitcher but hasn’t thrown like one this season.
Hamels made amends in the eighth inning Tuesday.