By John Russo
PHILADELPHIA — Perhaps the playoffs already started for the Phillies.
With rally towels waving and the crowd excited like it’s October, the Phils took the first of their critical three-game series with the Atlanta Braves, 3-1, on Monday night behind eight strong innings from starting pitcher Cole Hamels.
The win expanded the Phillies’ lead in the NL East to four games over Atlanta. Their magic number is now eight games to wrap up a fourth straight National League East title, a feat which remarkably could come as early as this weekend.
“For us it’s just another game, another stepping stone,” said Hamels, who hasn’t lost since August 19. “I think if we’re able to go out there and play one game at a time and go after them and try and try to get the job done then we’re able to play the baseball we expect ourselves to and come away with wins.”
Hamels was efficient for the Phils, allowing only one run on six hits and a walk and striking out six. Brad Lidge struck out two in a 1-2-3 ninth for his 24th save on the season.
“Hamels has been really good,” said manager Charlie Manuel. “But in order to win a lot of games these days that’s what pitchers got to be like.”
In his last five starts, Hamels has allowed only two runs in 36 2/3 innings pitched, an ERA of 0.49.
Hamels also got three double plays from his defense, the first coming with a runner on first and third with one out in the second. That double play was key because Atlanta already had a run on the board and was set to do more damage.
“I felt like he had good command,” said Manuel. “They turned three double plays and those ground balls were big for him.”
The Phillies only needed five more hits – and some help from the Braves defense – to give Hamels the support he would need. Carlos Ruiz knocked in a run with a double in the second and Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez plated a pair of runs on groundouts in the fifth.
Brandon Beachy, making an emergency start in place of injured pitcher Jair Jurrjens, did well enough to keep the Braves in the game. Making his major-league debut, he lasted 4 1/3 innings while allowing three runs, one earned, on six hits, three walks, and a strikeout.
Shane Victorino wound up on third on a ball that Braves right fielder Jason Heyward misplayed to start the fifth and scored on a groundout by Polanco to make it a 2-1 game. Ibanez drove in Chase Utley with a fielder’s choice grounder to make it a 3-1 game later in the inning, more than enough for Hamels.
Martin Prado almost tied up the game in the sixth inning. With a man on and one out and the Phillies up 3-1, Prado’s laser went just left of the foul pole in left.
It would have been the first home run allowed by Cole Hamels since August 24, but like most everything else on this night, the flight of the ball went the Phillies’ way.
Hamels, the ace of the 2008 World Series champions, admitted having two pitchers like Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt pitching in the same staff as him has taken a lot of weight off his shoulders this year.
“I think it puts you where you’re not as stressed, you know you don’t have to be, ‘that guy,’ you know, you don’t have to carry the whole team on your back,” Hamels said. “I think when you have one big-time pitcher on a team, guys kind of look at him to be that guy that’s always going to win, always get them out of the rut, always have that huge game and that puts a little bit more pressure on guys.”