October 11, 2010

Never a doubt.

As Cole Hamels entered his windup in the bottom of the ninth inning -- man on first, two-run lead, an 0-2 pitch to likely National League MVP Joey Votto about to leave his hand -- I lounged on my couch in Boston, seemingly without a care in the world.

A few years ago, I'd have been standing six inches from the TV, jersey on, Phillies hat torn off and locked in a death grip, terrified at what the Cincinnati Reds slugger might do to that baseball.

But in 2010? After two straight World Series berths, with 2008 Cole Hamels reanimated and throwing a gem before my eyes? Nah, I thought, the Philadelphia Phillies will be fine.

And they were. Hamels got Votto to ground into a double play, Scott Rolen struck out for what felt like the six-thousandth time this series, and the Phils were off to another NLCS. Just like we all expected.

Admittedly, I didn't think it would be over this quick. I anticipated a series much like the 2009 Phillies/Rockies NLDS; lengthy games, come-from-behind victories and many, many dingers being socked all over both ballparks.

But Hamels, Roy Halladay and the Phillies bullpen (sorry, Roy Oswalt, better luck in the Championship Series) made sure this would be a short and quick one. With, of course, an assist from the god awful Reds defense. You'd think Scott Rolen was Brooks Conrad, not a seven-time Gold Glove winner.

You can't say enough about what Cole Hamels did in Game 3. Like Brad Lidge, it's still a little disconcerting to see him on the mound at key moments. You remember what he's capable of, the frustrated tantrums he was prone to throw last year, and you can't help but tense up a bit.

But that Cole Hamels is gone. In his place is the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, only a little more seasoned, a little more hardened. He's not just getting by on talent, on a lethal two-pitch combo that no one had figured out just yet. He's a complete pitcher, a 26-year-old stud who might just get better and better.

And he's our no. 3 starter.

There's just no jinxing this team. I felt comfortable saying "Roy Halladay is pitching a no-hitter" out loud on Wednesday night, and I felt comfortable passively enjoying a playoff clincher last night. That doesn't mean that the bounces will all go our way, that Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth will rediscover their power strokes in time to win another title.

But it's a start, and it puts them light years ahead of the rest of the NL.

The 2009 Phillies came up short against the New York Yankees because Lidge and Ol' King Cole were shells of their former selves. Give Cliff Lee an ace buddy and a legit closer, and you're talking about a possible threepeat in 2010.

Of course, that didn't happen, but maybe they wouldn't have brought in Halladay and Oswalt if it did. And don't look now, but Hamels and Lidge are partying like its 2008 again. If that doesn't intimidate other teams, especially the punchless San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves, I don't know what will.

Confidence is high, extremely high. A few years ago, that in and of itself would have been terrifying. Now, it's just a part of Phillies baseball.

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