If any professional athlete answers the question, “Is there such thing as a good loss?” with anything other than a resounding no, one might have grounds to question the competitiveness of he or she. Having said that, from the mindset of the Philadelphia Phillies front office, coaching staff, and fanbase, one can look at Wednesday’s 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers with rose-colored glasses. In his return from rehabilitation from an injury setback during the offseason, starter Cole Hamels showed no signs of any complications and looked as strong as ever for substantial stretches of his first start of the season. Though Hamels would give way after the 6th with his team trailing and ultimately, the Phillies could not pull out their fourth straight win, one cannot help but breath a large sigh of relief from what the team’s prized southpaw put on display in Los Angeles.
With the Dodgers having already dropped the first two games of the series, they handed the ball off to prized righty and temporary ace (at least until Clayton Kershaw returns) Zack Greinke. The 2009 Cy Young winner entered Wednesday with a 3-0 record and a tidy 2.42 ERA to go along with it. With his team in danger of falling to 4-7 at the confines of Dodger Stadium, Greinke turned in a superb effort when Los Angeles needed it most. Had it not been for an apparent pitch count for Hamels to go along with the type of fatigue expected from a pitcher making his first major league start since last year, the resulting pitchers duel could have been one to remember. Nevertheless, what was put on display on a clear southern California night wasn’t too shabby.
After no base-runners in the 1st inning for either team, the Dodgers scratched across a run in the 2nd inning courtesy of a Juan Uribe sac fly. The Dodgers had first and third with no outs, but the run-scoring out by Uribe, followed by a fly-out and a Hamels pickoff play to end the inning kept the damage to a minimum.
In the top of the 4th inning, Jimmy Rollins got the first solid contact off Greinke with a lead-off double to right-center field. After a productive out by Chase Utley moved Rollins to third, Ryan Howard poked a single to left to score the game-tying run. Howard’s 14th RBI of the season would be all the Phillies could muster as Greinke sat down the next two batters with swinging strikeouts.
After cruising along for nearly the entire evening into the 5th inning, Hamels had his lone hiccup of the contest and it would cost him. After striking out the first two batters of the frame, Los Angeles eight-hole hitter Drew Butera fought off a two-strike pitch to right field to give the home team a two-out base runner. Hamels would then walk Greinke and what started as another nip-and-tuck inning was all-of-the-sudden a Dodger scoring threat.
After striking out in his first two at bats, Yasiel Puig would rip an RBI single to left to break the 1-1 tie. Hamels would pitch a scoreless 6th inning, though the lost run in the 5th probably left a sour taste in the lefty’s mouth. He would finish with the following line: 6.0 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, BB, 5 K. Hamels had all of his pitches working rather effectively for him and even hit 93 on his fastball on a few occasions where he needed some extra mustard. One has to imagine that, as Hamels continues to build his strength and stamina, outings where his pitches are working so effectively could result in much more memorable starts. For now, seeing their guy challenge batters, fight through a couple of jams, and make some world-class talents look silly on a few occasions was probably sufficient for a front office with a great deal invested in the lanky lefty’s production on the field.
Puig would add his second RBI of the evening off reliever Jeff Manship in the form of a two-out triple, also coming after the Phillies were unable to retire Greinke for the last out as the L.A. starter had doubled in the at-bat prior to Puig’s. The third run would prove to be costly, as Jayson Nix of all people tagged Greinke for a solo shot to start the 8th inning and spell an end for the Dodgers’ right-hander’s evening. He would strike out 11 in the seven innings of work giving up just the two earned runs. Unfortunately, on the heels of yet another strong starting pitching performance, the bullpen was unable to keep the Phillies in the game long enough to mount an effective comeback.
Los Angeles would increase its lead to 5-2 in the home half of the 8th inning, as Hanley Ramirez‘s solo home run and Justin Turner’s RBI single took the wind out of any sort of rally attempt. Closer Kenley Jansen would set the Phillies down in order, securing the Dodger’s first win of the season and keeping Philadelphia from breaching the .500 mark.
The timing of Hamels return, from a small picture standpoint, was less than ideal as they ran into a team urgent for a win and a starter who can go toe-to-toe with the best in baseball. With that in mind, and one has to think Hamels himself would tend to agree to an extent, a big part of Wednesday night was seeing if there were any present limitations to the franchise pitcher’s games. From everything I saw, beyond the aforementioned fatigue, Hamels looked every bit as good for most of the game as he did mowing down those same Dodgers in the 2008 NLCS. Now, with Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett both posting very strong back-to-back starts, one can see the top three of the Phillies rotation materializing. If there’s one advantage the Phillies can potentially take into a series over most of the teams in the MLB, it would have to be a potential starting three that can hold a prolific offense like the Dodgers at bay in extended fashion. There will have to be a larger sample size before we can pencil Hamels in for 15+ wins and a sub-3.00 ERA, but he looked like a pitcher capable of that for 90% of Wednesday’s game. The team will be down considering they were unable to collect the win, but one has to think there are several individuals in the Phillies clubhouse who will rest easier knowing Hamels still has the capability to put forth top-end efforts.
The two teams will close out the four-game set on Thursday when Kyle Kendrick faces off against Dan Haren. Philadelphia roughed Haren up pretty well on a few occasions when the righty was with Washington last season, so a series win is still very much a realistic, perhaps expected result. If Kendrick can eat up 6-7 innings and keep the Dodgers to 3-4 runs, there is no reason Philadelphia can’t escape Dodger stadium with three wins and a wave of momentum into Arizona.