LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps this was what Charlie Manuel had in mind when he decided not to use his top starter, Cole Hamels, three times in the National League Championship Series. The Phillies manager might just have envisioned Hamels on the mound at Dodger Stadium, with an opportunity to send his team to the World Series.
Forget the fact that by scheduling Hamels for Wednesday's Game 5, Manuel ensured that his top starter would be unable to start a potential Game 7. The Phillies, wanting to close this series out long before Game 7, weren't worried about that. And they certainly aren't worried about it now, standing on the verge of the World Series.
"I think the way we've handled Cole Hamels has been definitely the proper way to handle him," Manuel said. "Do I regret something? Not at all. I think that we have to have a plan. I think it was the right plan."
Wednesday might not be the most pressure-packed start of Hamels' young career, but it will undoubtedly be the most significant. If Hamels wins, he will send the Phillies closer to a title than they have been in 15 years.
He'll look to do so against Chad Billingsley, who endured his worst start of the year in Game 2, an inopportune time to struggle. But that doesn't mean that the Dodgers have lost confidence in Billingsley, one of their brightest young players, and a pitcher who can approach Hamels' level of sheer ability.
"The last time out he may have tried to over-prepare," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said of Billingsley. "That's just my opinion. I didn't think he changed speeds enough. He did early on in the game, and then all of a sudden it became hard, hard, hard -- and he paid the price for it."
And against Hamels, his margin for error will not be wide. Because for all the questions surrounding his work schedule, Hamels -- starting his two playoff games on extra rest -- has been nothing short of sensational.
TALE OF THE TAPE: GAME 5 STARTERS
PHILLIES Cole Hamels
DODGERS Chad Billingsley
2008 REGULAR SEASON
33 GS, 14-10, 3.09 ERA, 53 BB, 196 K
35 G, 32 GS, 16-10, 3.14 ERA, 80 BB, 201 K
Allowed .272 OBP to opponents (best in NL)
Allowed 14 HR in 200 2/3 IP
2 GS, 2-0, 1.20
2 GS, 1-1, 8.00
3 GS, 2-1, 2.08
4 G, 2 GS, 1-1, 6.55
AT DODGER STADIUM
1 GS, 0-0, 2.57
17 G, 16 GS, 10-4, 2.95
1 GS, 0-0, 2.57
44 G, 33 GS, 17-8, 3.58
AGAINST THIS OPPONENT
2008 regular season
2 GS, 1-0, 2.57
1 GS, 0-1, 4.50
2 GS, 1-0, 2.57
3 GS, 1-1, 4.00
Loves to face
2-for-11 (incl NLCS)
Chris Coste, 0-for-3
Hates to face
Manny Ramirez, 4-for-11 (incl. NLCS)
Pedro Feliz, 4-for-12, 1 HR, 1 2B
Why he'll win
7-3, 2.20 in last 12 starts (incl playoffs)
1.65 ERA last 7 home starts
LHH slugged .471 against him
5.06 first-inning ERA
Cole's on a roll
Can Bills bounce back?
Coming off eight shutout innings in the Division Series, Hamels then fired seven innings of two-run ball in Game 1 of the NLCS to give the Phillies a quick series edge. He has struck out 17 in the playoffs and walked just three, all while lowering his career postseason ERA to 2.08.
Manuel attributes most of that to the extra rest -- seven days before each of his first two playoff starts. And pitching coach Rich Dubee agrees. Seems the organization's take on Hamels is that his 242 1/3 innings this year -- 52 1/3 more than he's thrown during any single season of his professional career -- present a danger not worth testing. So the team chose not to test it, foregoing their opportunity to potentially start Hamels in Game 7.
"To have him twice is nice," Dubee said. "To have him three times, would it have been nicer? If we thought the risk was worth it -- but we weren't certain about it."
"It's allowed my body to heal," Hamels said of his consistent extra rest. "I've been able to go out there and have success. I've felt good every single time out there, and I'm definitely welcoming the six, seven days off."
It's difficult to complain with the results, and all parties involved know it. After Game 4, Torre alluded to the fact that he had to proceed cautiously with his starter, Derek Lowe, because Lowe was pitching on short rest. But no such concerns will burden Manuel in Game 5, knowing that it should be Hamels' final outing until a potential Game 1 start in the World Series.
Under any other circumstance, of course, thinking World Series might be thinking too far in the future. But Hamels needs only to win to send the Phillies there. And they're certainly glad that Hamels the one with their fate in his hands.
"I expect him to just come out and be himself," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "The Dodgers are a very dangerous team, and they've got their backs against the wall. You know they're going to come out with everything they've got."
That wasn't enough to beat Hamels in Game 1, and it might not be enough this time, either. By holding them to six hits and two runs over seven innings in that start, Hamels perhaps delivered a message: he's wholly capable of keeping the Dodgers at bay.
And the Dodgers, quite simply, must ignore that message. They have no other choice.
"We have to win the remaining games," Torre said. "We can only do it one at a time. I sense we'll be back right here with the right attitude. These guys have been playing hard. There's a little inexperience sprinkled in, but we knew that going in. But they're certainly not afraid."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.