Hamels' gem has Phillies alone in first

Hamels' gem has Phillies alone in first

PHILADELPHIA -- Standing casually near the on-deck circle, Cole Hamels awaited a seventh-inning chance that might never come -- the opportunity to hit with the bases loaded.

When Carlos Ruiz whiffed, Hamels strode to the plate to the loudest salute on an already loud and giddy Friday evening at Citizens Bank Park. The 45,084 fans applauded the lefty's dominating effort, drowning him with adulation through most of his five-pitch strikeout that served as little payback for how he treated the Nationals.

More roars came as Hamels strode to and from the mound after a scoreless eighth, acknowledging an ace-like performance in the latest and most important game of the season.

The Phillies would take down the Nationals, 6-0, and later, move into sole possession of first place in the National League East, taking full advantage of a Mets freefall that has them on the brink of elimination. On Saturday, the Phillies can clinch the division with a win and a Mets loss. That's when they can celebrate like it's 1993, the last time the Phillies won the NL East.

"[Hamels] dominated tonight," closer Brett Myers said. "If he pitches like tonight, there's not going to be anybody who can hit him."

"He's proven he can perform on a big stage," added reliever Tom Gordon. "That's as big as it gets."

Philadelphia's ace was making his third start since returning from a mild left elbow strain, and he had no trouble fanning 13 batters through eight innings. Washington collected six hits on Hamels' 116 pitches, two fewer than his season-high 118 on May 6.

The Nationals didn't have much of a chance against Hamels, who, for the first time since his return, was unencumbered by a pitch count, and tossed free and easy. He retired 13 of 14 batters over one stretch and had a three-ball count on three just opponents -- one of whom walked.

Asked by manager Charlie Manuel how he felt after each inning, Hamels gave the same response. He would've pitched the ninth, if allowed. He relieved heavily on his curve, rather than his trademark changeup.

"Every time I got into a situation where I could have thrown a changeup, I threw a curve instead," Hamels said. "I talked to Brett and Jamie [Moyer], and sometimes you just need to go out for the first three innings and just throw fastballs and curveballs. It's the equalizer."

It worked.

"He was fantastic," Nationals manager Manny Acta said.

Less than an hour after the Phillies game ended, a few players gathered in the clubhouse to watch the final outs of the Mets' loss to the Marlins. Most were away from the media.

When Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla put away Carlos Beltran's popup to end the game, there was only a smattering of applause, because the Phils know there's still work to do.

"It doesn't feel like nothing," Manuel said, when asked what it felt like to atop the NL East standings. "We got two games left, we're going to play [Saturday's] game and try to win. That's how we're going to do it. Of course we smell it, and we want it. Matter of fact, we might want it bad enough to where we've got to take it easy, relax and just play."

Still, Jimmy Rollins appears right when he declared in January that the Phillies were the "team to beat" in the NL East. That statement sparked a rivalry with the defending division champs that played out every time they met. At Shea Stadium, Rollins become the favorite villain and loved the attention.

While the Phillies aren't there yet, Rollins loves where they are. He and his teammates will wake up Saturday alone in first place for the first time since April 6, 2005.

The Phillies won for the 12th time in 15 games, their best run of the season, while the Mets lost for the 11th time in 15 games. Remember the Phils' 4-11 start that forced them into catchup mode? It took an identical swoon by New York for Philadelphia to get there.

"I've been here a couple of times, so I'm trying to concentrate on one day at a time," Gordon said. "It's not Sunday, it's just Saturday. Hopefully, everything goes well for us. We'll have to wait till we get there. We'd like to be the ones celebrating.

"When you see that plastic up [protecting the lockers from champagne], you know what time it is."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.