Jul 9, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels (35) delivers to the plate during the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Nationals 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A Turning Point? Phils Beat Nats 4-2 Thanks To Huge 8th Inning

There are points in time during a successful Major League season that a team looks back on at the end of the year and says to themselves, “That’s where it all began to happen for us.”

Whether Tuesday night’s 4-2 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park becomes one of those moments remains to be seen. But that eighth inning last night sure was fun as all get-out.

The REAL Cole Hamels showed up for the second straight game, and especially came to play in that pivotal eighth inning, earning every bit of the $19.5 million he’s owed this season.

The Nationals had loaded the bases with one out thanks to some shaky home plate umpiring and a mind-bogglingly bad defensive play by John Mayberry Jr. off the bat of Ian Desmond. As Hamels tried to protect a 4-1 lead, he had to face Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, the two most dangerous hitters (outside of Bryce Harper, of course) in the Nats’ lineup.

Werth had already hit a long home run off Hamels earlier in the game, and Zimmerman had a career .812 OPS against Phillies pitching, including 14 career HRs. Both men represented the winning run.

As Hamels prepared to face Zimmerman, manager Charlie Manuel came out to the mound. However, no one expected him to take out his $153 million ace.

“We knew Cole was staying in,” Michael Young said.”

“I said, ‘I’m not out here to take you out. I came out here to look at you,’” Manuel said. “He kind of grinned. I said, ‘You got him?’ He said, ‘I got him.’ That’s good, really. He kind of grinned at me and said, ‘I got him.’ That was good.” – quotes per MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki

What happened next was as good as Major League Baseball gets, and just maybe will be the turning point in what has been a 2013 season adrift.

Hamels struck out Zimmerman on three pitches, the last a high fastball that Ryan swung through. Hamels then got ahead of Werth 0-2 before Jayson eventually worked the count full. With runners on the move, Werth lifted a high fly ball to deep center field, but it was playable for Ben Revere, who made the catch and ended the threat.

It was the kind of beautiful tension this team used to give the fans on a regular basis for a five-year span.

“I think that was something we haven’t seen all year,” Hamels said of the energetic crowd of 33,502. “That was the most exciting eighth inning I’ve had in a long time, especially with it not being a sellout. It felt like there were 60,000 fans, so that was awesome to see that from the fans on every pitch. Definitely brought the energy level back.”

Jul 9, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel (41) talks with pitcher Cole Hamels (35) during the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Nationals 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It was also especially encouraging to see Hamels returning to form over his last two starts. Last night he went eight innings and gave up just one run on six hits, striking out four and walking one. He lowered his ERA to 4.17 and won back-to-back games for the first time this year.

Now would be a really good time for Hamels to find his groove and give the Phillies that 1-2 punch with Cliff Lee that the team had been counting on coming into the season.

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that Cole has picked up his game after the Phils pushed back his previous start by two days to give him what they termed “a breather.” Those extra breaths seem to have helped.

Meanwhile, the Phils’ offense was getting some uncharacteristically big hits once again. Dom Brown had another RBI, and Michael Young delivered a huge one-out, two-run double in the sixth to put the Phils ahead 4-1. Ben Revere also added another two hits and his now hitting .302 with a .338 on-base percentage and an OPS of .690.

All of a sudden, it sure looks like Ruben Amaro pushed the right button when selecting his center fielder in the off-season.

And with Jonathan Papelbon being given the night off, Antonio Bastardo gave up a run in the ninth but closed out the win for his second save of the year.

The Phillies are now just one game under .500 and have drawn to within 1 1/2 games of the Nats for second place in the NL East. Atlanta’s win against Miami keeps the Phillies 7 1/2 games out of first, but drew them to within 5 1/2 games of the NL wild card. Perhaps more importantly, there are now only two teams ahead of the Phils for the second wild card spot; the Reds and the Nats. The Phillies have won 4 out of the first 5 games of this homestand, and have won 6 of 8 games this week against Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Washington.

If they keep this up, the Phillies will turn from potential sellers to potential buyers, likely in search of bullpen depth.

Whether that’s good for the long-term future of the team is questionable. What isn’t questionable is that Cole Hamels brought some sorely missed electricity and playoff atmosphere to Citizens Bank Park last night, and potentially provided a turning point in the 2013 season.

Let’s see if the Phils actually use it as a springboard, or if it’s merely just a small delay in a full-scale sell-off that is to come.

Where It All Went Right

Obviously in the 8th, when Hamels retired Zimmerman and Werth. Of his at-bat with Werth, Hamels said…

“He and I were playing the guessing games the whole game. He definitely got me that first at-bat, so it had made me more aware to really be careful of him. He’s been here, he’s seen me a ton, I’ve seen him a ton. It’s a serious guessing game and a serious chess match we have between us.”

Sometimes, I love baseball so much it borders on the unhealthy.

Hero

Hamels, who in his last two starts has pitched 15 innings and given up just 2 earned runs. Hopefully, he’s back.

Villain

Werth, who most rational Phillies fans still love and appreciate, but during this series must be treated with the respectful hatred that he deserves. His homer off Hamels in the second inning reminded everyone why the Phillies miss him so much.

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