Rosters are expanded, further skewing the box scores. So don't believe anything you see when school is back in session and there is just a touch of autumn chill accenting the evening air. Baseball's trash can is overflowing with players who made a big splash in the final month, then disappeared almost without a trace. Glug, glug.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and for the Phillies these include Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge. They were bright and shining stars in that championship season whose brightness has flickered in the year after.
For them, given their track records, September is an opportunity. Not for redemption, exactly, but at least for a chance to remove the invisible question mark from beside their names as the Phillies gird for a shot at defending their title.
Hamels took a large stride in that direction last night with a complete-game, 1-0 win over the Giants. He allowed just two hits and has now pitched 19 straight scoreless innings.
To be fair, the 25-year-old lefty who now is 8-8 with a 4.26 earned run average hadn't been horrid previously. He has had his moments. But not nearly as many as he had last year, when he established himself as the staff ace and topped it off with a flourish, being voted MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series.
Last night had reverberations beyond those couple of hours on the mound. He was coming off one of his better efforts of the season, eight shutout innings at Pittsburgh. Another strong performance would give the Phillies reason to hope that he is finding himself just in time for the most important part of the schedule.
Granted, he was up against a Giants team that ranks near the bottom of the league in homers and runs scored . . . and was playing with third baseman Pablo Sandoval (tight calf) and catcher Bengie Molina (tight quad) limited to pinch-hitting.
And, granted, the Pirates don't remind anybody of the 1927 Yankees.
Charlie Manuel doesn't care. "Not really," the manager said. "When he's putting the ball where he wants to, when his stuff is like that and he's got his command, he can pitch [successfully] against anybody.
"I think it's going to continue. I think he's kind of found his command and his stuff. When he's pitching like that, he can run off a long streak for you. He did exactly what he wanted with his fastball. When he wanted to throw it out of the strike zone, he did. When he wanted to throw it for strikes, he did. He loves his changeup, but he pitches off his fastball. And he threw some outstanding breaking balls."
And along the way there was a revealing moment that neatly demonstrated why sometimes the expectation of pitching well has a value all its own.
Shane Victorino was on third with one out in the bottom of the fourth of a scoreless tie. Ryan Howard was at the plate. Giants manager Bruce Bochy had the infield in, a clear indication that he expected a low-scoring game. If he anticipated that his lineup was going to get to the Phillies' starter, whoever it was, he probably would have aligned his defense differently.
As it was, Howard yanked a sharp grounder just inside first base and just past the glove of a diving Ryan Garko for an RBI double. Had Garko been playing at normal depth, he might have been able to make the play.
Lidge, of course, has been in a seasonlong funk. Almost every school kid can recite the litany by now: After going a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities last season, including the postseason, he already has failed to hold nine leads this year.
But . . . in six of his last seven appearances, he has been almost spotless. He has allowed one hit and one unearned run in those six games. The exception was a week ago when, pitching for the fourth straight day, he had a spectacular blowup in the bottom of the ninth at Pittsburgh.
Lidge warmed up but didn't get out of the bullpen last night as Hamels took a one-hitter into the ninth. He still has a way to go before Phillies fans can stop holding their breath when he trots in from the bullpen. He has had false starts before. But Manuel has said repeatedly that he expects his closer to get hot, and Big Chuck has been right more than he's been wrong on that sort of thing in his time here.
September can be a mirage. For the Phillies, for Hamels and Lidge, it might be a signpost instead.
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