Looking For The Silver Lining

An odd thing happened to the Phillies on their way to oblivion. Not only did they win their first series of the year, part of four wins in five games, but also they may have found a true ace to lead their pitching staff.

When the Phillies limped off the field on Friday, April 20th, they were a badly beaten bunch. A devastating loss to the Reds seemed to squeeze the last wisp of breath from their lungs. No silver lining in sight, it was the low point of the season so far.

The next day, embattled skipper Charlie Manuel called a team meeting that ate into batting practice. Apparently many words were spoken and guys got a lot off their chests. You might call it opening day as the squad opened up and decided to become a team.

With a renewed sense of purpose, Cole Hamels went out and struck out the side in the first inning and never looked back on his way to a dominating 15 strikeout masterpiece, marred only by a solo shot by savvy veteran Jeff Conine in the second inning. Cole's command performance couldn't have come at a better time. With Myers out of the rotation, the Phillies were looking for an ace to emerge. Hamels made a strong statement on Saturday night.

Thanks to Abraham Nunez' anticipation and Chase Utley's tremendous turn at second base, the Phillies turned a memorable triple play. Few second basemen could have made that throw. When Chase turned it, very possibly he turned the Phillies season right around with it. Sometimes one play has that kind of power. Who can say what would have happened if it had been a double down the line instead of a triple play, but as low as the Phillies were, it could have easily led to another loss.

After the triple killing, Cole took control and simply refused to lose. He focused on every pitch, finished the game, giving the shell-shocked bullpen a desperately needed rest.

Thereafter, the pressure seemed to lift from the Phillies, who won the next night in a 9-3 laugher to take their first series of the season from the slumping Cincinnati Reds. The following night against the Astros the Phillies offense banged out 20 hits in another easy win.

Where the Phillies go from here will depend almost entirely on how new ace Cole Hamels handles his role. That may be a lot of pressure to put on such a young and inexperienced pitcher, but that is the Phillies reality, like it or not. Moving Brett Myers to the pen makes it so, especially with Garcia pitching like an unanswered question. Jamie Moyer can handle the mentor's role, but Cole has to be the ace on the mound.

Myers deserves a lot of credit for his positive attitude about moving to the bullpen as a set-up man. Myers said all the right things to the media and appeared genuinely willing to do whatever it takes to get the Phillies to the playoffs. It was refreshing to hear Myers use the word "playoffs", though the possibility seemed remote at the time.

By moving Myers from the rotation to the pen, it looks very much like the Phillies are robbing Peter to pay Paul. But with their bullpen in a shambles it is worth a shot. Myers has the stuff to be a hammer in the late innings, though his ability to bounce back from a loss will ultimately determine how effective he can be in relief.

Meanwhile, closer Tom Gordon has struggled, which isn't surprising considering how few innings he pitched in spring training. Chances are Gordon will straighten himself out, but you wonder if the kid-gloves treatment he received in spring training points to something more serious than the Phillies are letting on. Moving Myers into the pen only adds to the sense that the Phillies are fretting over Flash. Gordon has already blown two of his five save opportunities and hasn't looked himself.

With the Myers move, Jon Lieber is back in the rotation where he belongs. Lieber has been on a rollercoaster ride over the past several seasons. After winning 17 games in 2005, Lieber opened the season as the ace for 2006, only to disappoint with a sub-par campaign. While Lieber isn't ace material, he is a solid major league starter. Lieber, a linchpin in the rotation, is in a position to make a huge difference in the Phillies fortunes.

Pat Gillick signed Freddy Garcia as a top of the rotation guy, but Garcia didn't exactly dominate in his first couple of games back after nagging arm troubles delayed his Phillies debut. Garcia has playoff experience and may just pitch his way to the top of the Phillies depth chart, but for now Cole is the man. Garcia still hasn't regained his velocity and has given up hits at an alarming rate.

A rotation of Cole Hamels, Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Jon Lieber and Adam Eaton is not bad, but there's no chance of a "Big Three" now that Myers is in the pen. It is more like a big one, with four other guys who can keep you in games.

One could argue that Myers wasn't "Big Three" material anyway, but Myers did average over a dozen wins a season over the last four years and at times could dominate opponents. Now, the Phillies must rely on Moyer, Eaton and Lieber, three hurlers not known to intimidate batters or dominate games, to pick up the slack. If Garcia continues his transmogrification into a finesse pitcher instead of regaining his form as a dominator, the Phillies rotation will miss Myers that much more.

The bottom line is that the Phillies need to sort out their pitching. If Hamels stays on track, if Garcia isn't a bust, if Moyer stays healthy, if Lieber and Eaton keep the ball down, if the bullpen holds and Myers and Gordon can close out games, then the Phillies could be primed to make a run.

That's a lot of "ifs", but the Phillies' storm clouds are finally starting to show a silver lining. Most auspicious is the emergence of Cole Hamels, Philadelphia's ace.

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