Growing up as a Philadelphia Phillies fan during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, there were many seasons of disappointment and anguish which I had to endure. Looking back on some of those teams, I wonder how I even stayed interested in the sport and the team.
But growing up outside of Philadelphia and having a father who was a lifelong Phillies fan left me with little choice. It did not hurt that my dad and I would go to a few games a year at Veteran’s Stadium. We would also listen to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn as games took place on television.
In addition, we attended many of the Phillies external events around the local area. I still recall going to the Christiana Mall in Delaware and waiting in line to get autographs from players like Scott Rolen (my favorite player growing up), Robert Person, and a few others. As a young kid, that was amazing! And despite the team’s usually poor record back then, the memories will stick with me forever.
However, every time we went to a game it felt like the Phillies would lose. As a young kid, I would often leave Veterans Stadium disappointed. Looking back, it is now understandable why it felt as if those teams could never pull out a win. Aside from Curt Schilling, the Phillies rolled out starting pitchers named Mike Mimbs, Carlton Loewer, and Matt Beech.
Yes, those are real names of starting pitchers from the Phillies back in the late 1990’s. Schilling was the workhorse and a mainstay in the rotation from 1992 to 2000. When the Phillies decided to trade the big right-hander to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000 the rotation only got worse.
The Phillies planned to open Citizens Bank Park in 2004, and it was in anticipation of that first season in their new home that the front office decided to enter the free agent market. As part of that effort they brought in starting pitchers who had enjoyed some success already such as Kevin Millwood, Jon Lieber, and Eric Milton.
They also signed closer Billy Wagner. And for the lineup there was the biggest addition, slugger Jim Thome. With the new talent added to a few good players already developing like Mike Lieberthal, Bobby Abreu, Jimmy Rollins, and Pat Burrell, the Phillies started to enjoy winning seasons, and better days were ahead in South Philly.
In the early 2000’s, that front office made a concerted effort to build their farm system as well. The losing years from 1994 through 2000 allowed the Phillies to draft in the first half of the first round. Players like Burrell, Brett Myers, and Chase Utley entered the system and the Phillies were laying a solid foundation for the future.
Perhaps the most important draft pick of those early 2000’s was a left-handed high school pitcher out of southern California. That pitcher would grow to become the young leader of the Phillies pitching staff, and would one day lift the Commissioners Trophy in red pinstripes.
Cole Hamels was drafted by the Phillies at 17th overall in the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft out of Rancho Bernardino High School. He featured an arsenal that included a mid-90’s fastball and advanced secondary pitches and the Phillies hoped the southpaw would reach the majors more quickly than most high school selections. Sure enough, after four successful seasons in the minors the Phillies promoted him in May 2006.
The club had teased but fallen short of the postseason during the first half of the decade. But the 2007 team would become the first Phillies club since 1993 to push into the playoffs. They overcame a big deficit to the New York Mets that September to capture the National League East Division crown and entered the National League Division Series vs the Colorado Rockies feeling confident. This was partly thanks to a stellar season by Hamels. At just age 23 he went 15-5 with a 3.39 ERA and 177 strikeouts and made the NL All-Star team. Though he struggled somewhat during a 4-2 loss in Game 1 of the 2007 NLDS, the experience gained helped Hamels to prime for an even better year in 2008.
Hamels entered the 2008 season as the Phillies most talented starting pitcher, the emerging young ace of a rotation that also included Myers and veteran Jamie Moyer. Manager Charlie Manuel chose to give the Opening Day assignment to Myers. The right-hander had been with the club since 2002, and the skipper appreciated Myers’ willingness to switch into the closer role the prior season due to injuries.
Not getting to make that Opening Day start didn’t affect Hamels one bit as he picked up right where he left off in 2007. He led the Phillies in wins and ERA through May and would finish the 2008 regular season with 227.1 innings pitched, still a career high. His 1.082 WHIP led all of Major League Baseball that year and is also a career best mark.
Hamels regular season numbers in 2008 were outstanding. But they only set the stage for an even further elevated performance during the 2008 postseason. That series of outings would lead the Phillies to become champions of baseball and continue to live on in Philadelphia sports folklore to this day.
The Phillies won the National League East Division in 2008 by overcoming a September deficit to the New York Mets for a second consecutive season. That resulted in a National League Division Series match-up with the Milwaukee Brewers who were led by Phillies-killer Ryan Braun and the powerful Prince Fielder. The Brewers had added talented southpaw pitcher C.C. Sabathia to bolster their rotation down the stretch and were going to be a tough opponent.
In Game 1 of the 2008 NLDS at Citizens Bank Park, Manuel sent Hamels to the mound to face right-hander Yovani Gallarado. This was seen as one that the Phillies had to win, as Brewers manager Dale Sveum was scheduled to send out the red-hot Sabathia to start the second game.
Hamels had received very little run support from the normally prolific Phillies offense throughout the 2008 season. But in the 3rd inning they came through with three runs, Hamels scoring one of those on a two-run double by Utley. By that time he was already cruising through the Brewers lineup. Mixing his great changeup with an effective fastball, Hamels went eight scoreless innings, striking out nine while allowing just two hits.
After the game, Sveum was quoted by the Associated Press: “not too many times you can say you’re happy to see Lidge, but we didn’t hit the ball hard off Hamels all day.” Manuel had chosen to bring in his closer, Brad Lidge, to pitch the ninth. The Brewers rallied to score a run and had the bases loaded before Lidge struck out Corey Hart to end it.
The win gave the Phillies their first postseason victory in 15 years! The raucous ballpark, with all 45,929 fans twirling white rally towels in the air, saw a playoff gem from their young starter.
After losing the opener of the 2007 NLDS, Hamels noted per the AP after his stellar performance against Milwaukee that “I learned what it really takes in trying to kind of mellow out, not have that sort of excitement where you can’t really control everything.”
That opening game performance from Hamels was only the beginning. Philly sports fans were enjoying the start to one of the all-time great postseason runs from any hometown player in local sports history. The Phillies would go on to defeat the Brewers in that 2008 NLDS by three games to one, advancing on to the National League Championship Series where they would face the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Those Dodgers were managed by Joe Torre and featured a deep lineup with the likes of Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Jeff Kent, Andre Ethier, and Russell Martin. Their talented and experienced bench included veterans Andruw Jones, Nomar Garciaparra, Rafael Furcal, and Juan Pierre. The pitching staff was led by veterans Derek Lowe and Hiroki Kuroda, fireballing reliever Jonathan Broxton, and a 20-year-old left-handed rookie named Clayton Kershaw. The Phillies were up against an even tougher opponent now.
Just as with the NLDS, Hamels got the ball from Manuel to start Game 1 of the 2008 NLCS. And just like the series before, Hamels produced another gutsy outing at Citizens Bank Park. Working seven strong innings he allowed just two runs while scattering six hits and two walks, striking out eight Dodgers batters. The Phillies were shut down by Lowe and trailed through much of the game, but Hamels had kept them close.
Finally in the bottom of the 6th inning the offense woke up. Home runs by Utley and Burrell off Lowe took them from a 2-0 deficit to a 3-2 lead. Ryan Madson and Lidge followed Hamels to the mound with a pair of strong relief innings and the Phillies had the important series lead.
After the Phillies out-slugged the Dodgers by 8-5 in Game 2, the series shifted to the West Coast for three games at Dodger Stadium. There the Dodgers routed Moyer in the 1st inning of Game 3 to get back into the series. Game 4 would prove to be high drama. The Dodgers held a 5-3 lead into the top of the 8th inning and appeared set to even the series. But a one-out, two-run homer from Shane Victorino tied it and then a two-out, two-run homer off the bat of pinch-hitter Matt Stairs gave the Phillies the lead. Lidge would go an inning and two-thirds for the save to put the Phillies just a win away from clinching a birth to the World Series for the first time since 1993.
Game 5 of the 2008 NLCS took place on the night of October 15th with the Phillies holding a three games to one series lead and knowing that the final two games would be held back in Philadelphia. However, they didn’t want to give the Dodgers a chance to stay alive. Before Hamels even threw his first pitch the Phillies had a 1-0 lead as Rollins led off the game with a home run off Chad Billingsley.
Knowing that he had received very little run support during the regular season, Hamels wasn’t determined not to relinquish that lead. He spun another gem, pitching seven innings, allowing just five hits and one run while striking out five. The Phillies would produce two-run rallies in both the 3rd and 5th innings. They went on to win the game 5-1, clinching the series and capturing their first National League pennant in 15 years.
Through his performance over the two NLCS starts, Hamels was awarded the series Most Valuable Player honors. He earned wins in both of those outings, striking out 13 batters over 14 innings while allowing just 11 hits and three runs in leading the team to the World Series.
Hamels knew that there was more work to be done, saying per the Associated Press “to get an award like this is something surreal. This definitely has to go to the whole team right here. But it’s only a stepping stone. Being in that parade down Broad Street is what we all want. Getting a World Series ring and trophy is what really matters. Getting there is great, but winning it all is the best.“
After finishing that NLDS and NLCS with three wins, Hamels had quickly moved to second place on the all-time postseason wins list in Phillies history, trailing only Hall of Famer Steve Carlton.
Having won their series in five games the Phillies had to wait nearly a week as the ALCS between the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox went the full seven-game distance. The Rays took Game 7 by 3-1 to win the American League pennant, and so the Phillies would travel to Tropicana Field to open the 2008 World Series.
Born as a 1998 expansion team originally known as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the AL champs had dropped the “Devil” and adopted their new name for that 2008 season. It may be just a coincidence, but dumping the devil seemed to work. Never having won more than 70 games over the first decade of their existence, the Rays won 97 games that year and captured the AL East Division title. After ousting the Chicago White Sox in a four-game ALDS and then the division-rival Red Sox in the ALCS the upstart Rays were riding their underdog status all the way to the World Series.
The Rays sported a young roster made up of players like Melvin Upton, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and Carlos Pena paired with a strong starting rotation led by James Shields, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir. They had a veteran bench group that included Cliff Floyd, Ben Zobrist, Eric Hinske, and Rocco Baldelli. And manager Joe Maddon had a talented bullpen from which he had begun bringing in a lefty phenom named David Price.
Hamels once again took the bump for Game 1 of the 2008 World Series facing another talented young southpaw in Kazmir. Again, the offense gave Hamels a lead before he even took the mound, this time compliments of an Utley two-run homer.
Hamels allowed a two-out solo home run to Crawford in the bottom of the 4th then another run in the bottom of the 5th which cut the Phillies lead to 3-2. Aside from those blips he worked seven strong innings, allowing five hits with five strikeouts. Madson and Lidge again worked shutout frames and the Phillies had the series lead.
The Rays came back to take Game 2 by a 4-2 score to even up the Fall Classic and the series shifted to Philadelphia. There, a cold and wet weather pattern had settled in and would do no one any favors.
Rain would delay the start to Game 3, with the Phillies eventually walking off with a 6-5 win on a Carlos Ruiz infield single at 1:45 in the morning. Returning to the South Philly ballpark just a few hours later for Game 4, the Phillies offense erupted for 10 runs with Ryan Howard blasting a pair of homers. The club was now on the brink of winning the franchise’ first World Series Championship since 1980.
Making the fans even more excited for a genuine possibility of winning the championship was that Hamels was scheduled to take the mound. Pitching in light rain and cold weather at the start of Game 5, he would eventually comment: “that was the worst weather I’ve pitched in in my entire life.“
The Phillies jumped out to another early lead by scoring twice in the bottom of the 1st inning on a two-out, two-run single by Victorino. With Hamels continuing his pitching dominance the outcome was beginning to feel inevitable. He breezed through the first three innings, allowing a single run in the 4th, and Hamels would go on to the 6th inning with that 2-1 lead intact.
However, the rains had fallen throughout and had gotten worse with each inning. By the top of that 6th inning they were becoming torrential. With the playing field deteriorating, the Rays scored the tying run. Hamels would retire the dangerous Longoria with the go-ahead run out at second base. After that top of the 6th inning play was finally halted.
After a delay the unprecedented occurred when the game was suspended by commissioner Bud Selig, a first in MLB postseason history, due to the combination of the unplayable field surface and a forecast that was not improving.
The Phillies and many of their fans were livid with the timing of the decision. Why wait until the game had been tied up when the same conditions had existed for at least a couple of innings prior? Did this delayed decision by Selig waste another stellar performance by Hamels? When would the series return?
In the end, the rains continued unabated in Philadelphia for nearly two more days. Game 5 had begun on Monday, October 27. It would not resume until Wednesday night, October 29. Once play did resume, Hamels was obviously not available to pitch on such short rest. He had gone six innings, allowing two runs and five hits while striking out three.
The Phillies recaptured the lead in the bottom of the 6th, putting Hamels in line for another win. That would have given him a 5-0 postseason record. However, Baldelli tied it up with a homer off Madson in the top of the 7th inning, officially closing the scorebook on Hamels’ appearance. Later in the inning a great, heads-up play by Utley would cut down Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett at the plate tand keep it tied at 3-3.
In the Phillies half of the 7th, Burrell led off with a booming double. Pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett would come home on a base hit by third baseman Pedro Feliz and the Phillies had a 4-3 lead. After J.C. Romero shut the Rays down in the 8th, Lidge would come in for the 9th where he struck out Hinske to end it. The team piled up at the Citizens Bank Park mound, the fans in attendance roared loudly, and the entire city erupted! As legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas would call it on the radio “The Philadelphia Phillies are world champions of baseball!“
For only the second time in their history the Phillies were champs. As the celebrations continued, Hamels was named as the 2008 World Series MVP, giving him an amazing double with his NLCS MVP honors. He finishing the series having allowed just four earned runs on 10 hits over 13 innings for a 2.70 ERA. Had it not been for Baldelli’s game-tying blast in that final game, Hamels would have been the first pitcher in MLB history to win five games in one postseason.
Throughout the entire 2008 postseason Hamels was nearly perfect. He finished with a record of 4-0 and an ERA of 1.80, and there was not a time during that run that the lefty did not rise to the situation when things got tough. He held opponents scoreless in 28 of 35 innings during that October postseason run. Hamels allowed 23 hits and seven runs over the four starts with a 30/9 K:BB ratio.
From that moment on the rest of the baseball world knew that the Phillies finally had an ace-caliber starting pitcher. Hamels would get the ball for many of their big games as the team continued a winning run over the next three years, and the Phillies would award him with a three-year, $20.5 million contract after that 2008 season.
Entering the 2009 season he was the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff, though Hamels would miss his Opening Day start due to injury. He wasn’t as strong in 2009, but the Phillies would add another ace, Cliff Lee, during the season along with veteran Pedro Martinez, and go on to repeat as National League champions.
In 2010 it was Roy Halladay added to the staff and a return to the NLCS. For 2011, both Halladay and Lee joined with Hamels and Roy Oswalt to form the “Four Aces” rotation, a group that would lead the club to a franchise record 102 regular season wins. But despite all of their talent and much winning, the Phillies were not able to raise another World Series trophy.
His teammates from 2008 were either traded away or retired, and by the summer of 2015 Hamels was one of the last remaining members of that old, winning core. Like any other good storybook ending, the final chapter of his Phillies career was written in a brilliant moment. On July 25, 2015, Hamels went to the mound wearing a Phillies uniform for the last time and tossed a no-hitter at Wrigley Field against the host Chicago Cubs. Six days later he would be traded to the Texas Rangers.
Hamels has pitched with both the Rangers and Cubs over the past four seasons. Should we finally see Major League Baseball resume in 2020, he will likely face the Phillies in the uniform of the NL East-rival Atlanta Braves.
But for Phillies fans he will always be a Phillie first. One day he will find himself honored with a plaque on the Phillies Wall of Fame and those fans will cheer him once more. Memories of Cole Hamels decade-long run in red pinstripes will last for as long as there is baseball in Philadelphia. That will be especially so for the brilliant fall of 2008, when he led the Phillies to the top of the baseball world.