That Houston team is one of only two teams over the past two decades that have fielded three postseason starters who equaled the credentials of the Phillies' Big Three: at least 32 starts and 200 innings pitched and an ERA under 3.07.
The other was the 1996 Braves, who featured John Smoltz (24-8, 2.94 ERA), Greg Maddux (15-11, 2.72 ERA) and Tom Glavine (15-10, 2.98 ERA).
Both the Astros and the Braves lost in the World Series in their respective seasons. But the Atlanta did win a world championship in 1995, when each of their three starters threw at least 190 innings and posted an ERA of under 3.20.
Bobby Cox, the manager of those famed Braves teams, said the Phillies' current rotation is on the same level as the one that propelled Atlanta to 14 consecutive division titles.
And when he looks at Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt, he sees the same characteristic that sets the best starters apart.
"Toughness," he said. "They are all tough guys. Mentally and physically. Pitch. Don't miss. And mentally get through it."
Easier said than done?
"There's only so many great ones," Cox said.
You don't have to tell that to Pat Gillick, who in his 3 years as the Phillies' general manager worked hard to add pitching to a team that had established itself as one of the most potent offensive powers in the majors. In 2008, he watched in awe as Hamels, then 24, tore through the postseason while leading the Phillies to their first world title in 28 years. But even in the wake of his young lefty's breakthrough season, Gillick knew that the surest way to sustain success was by adding pitching. So he was very much on board with the philosophy his successor, Ruben Amaro Jr., employed over the next two seasons.
First came Cliff Lee at the 2009 trade deadline. Then, in the offseason, Amaro shipped Lee to the Mariners and traded for Halladay, who agreed to a 3-year, $60 million contract extension that the Phillies thought was a more affordable deal than they could get Lee to sign. Finally, in late July, Amaro added Oswalt, trading lefthander J.A. Happ, rising outfield prospect Anthony Gose and low-level infield prospect Jonathan Villar to Houston.
"I think Hamels was the start of it," said Gillick, now a senior adviser to the Phillies. "We were trying to develop pitching; it's just that pitching is very hard to develop. Ruben went out and got two proven quality starters in Halladay and Oswalt. You can't do much better than that. It's very difficult to develop impact-type pitchers such as Halladay and Oswalt are, and you are fortunate to deal for them. And when you have the opportunity to deal for them, I think you have to move forward."
The result was a second-half surge that propelled the Phillies from a seven-game deficit in late July to an NL East clincher with five games remaining in the season. After the Phillies fell to 48-46 with a loss to the Cardinals on July 21, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt combined to go 23-7 with a 2.21 ERA the rest of the way.
In the Phillies' biggest series of the season, the three aces combined to hold the Braves to four runs in 22 innings of a three-game sweep that gave them a stranglehold on the NL East.
"You have to say that where we came from after the All-Star Break, it was our pitching," Gillick said. "It was Halladay, it was Hamels, it was Oswalt. It was the whole group that got us here."
Now, that group is the biggest reason why the Phillies are the trendy pick to win their second World Series in 3 years.
"It doesn't hurt," second baseman Chase Utley said dryly.
"They've obviously been outstanding for us all year. They have dominating stuff, and they aren't much fun to face. So it's definitely a positive on our side."
Two years ago, when Hamels pitched all three Game 1s and picked up NL Championship Series and World Series MVP honors, he never could have envisioned filling the role he now finds himself in. If you told him then that he would someday follow Halladay and Oswalt in a rotation, his first thought would not have been the postseason.
"I would think that I would be pitching the fourth inning of an All-Star Game and those two would be before me," he said.
The three pitchers each bring a different style to the mound. Halladay is a surgeon who can throw an array of pitches with wicked movement, calling to mind Maddux during the Braves' heyday. Hamels, according to one American League executive, is like a young Cliff Lee, especially now that he has increased the velocity on his fastball and added a cutter. Oswalt is an even rarer breed, who attacks hitters with a vengeance that belies his diminutive stature. Any one of them could have made a case to play the lead dog in this postseason run.
"To have guys who can each start a Game 1, that just instills confidence in each other, and hopefully in our offense, just knowing that any one of us can get the job done and do a very good job," Hamels said.
"But we do have to get the job done."
Tonight, that job begins. And Hamels has no problem being the Third Roy. *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog,
High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese. Follow him on Twitter