Cole Hamels turns page on messy '09

CINCINNATI -- As he stood there on that pitcher's mound Sunday night, history in his grasp, it was hard to remember the Cole Hamels of last October.

The Cole Hamels who put all those zeroes on the scoreboard Sunday night in Cincinnati was more like the 2008 edition, the World Series MVP edition, the reach-for-the-sky edition.

Only better.

So he's not to be confused with the 2009 model. … The guy with the 7.58 postseason ERA. … The guy who never got through the sixth inning in any of his four October starts. … The guy his team would have been terrified to start in Game 7 of the World Series, had there actually been a Game 7 of last year's World Series.

That guy wore this same uniform only one year ago. But for the man who closed out the first postseason sweep in Phillies history Sunday night -- with the first complete-game shutout in a postseason clincher since Josh Beckett finished off the Yankees in 2003 -- it was proof of just how much can change in a year.

And just how much a man can learn from the darkest hours of his career.

"He went through a year like he'd never gone through before," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said after Hamels' five-hit masterpiece, in a 2-0 win, had completed his team's three-game dismantling of the Reds.

"He'd never had a season, ever, where he did not have success," Amaro went on. "But he went through that in '09, didn't handle it maybe as well as he would have liked, learned from it, dealt with it in the offseason, prepared himself much better and came back to be the Cole of old."

But even the Cole of old never did what the Cole Hamels of 2010 did Sunday. True, the Cole of old was enough of a dominator to win himself both a World Series and an NLCS MVP trophy. But this Cole Hamels inscribed his name on a whole different page of the October history books.

The list of pitchers who walked into the other team's park and ended a postseason series with a complete-game shutout is a list that includes some of the most magical names in recent, and not-so-recent, baseball history:

In Hamels' lifetime -- all 26 years of it -- only two other pitchers had done it. One was Beckett, in Yankee Stadium, in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series. The other was John Smoltz, in Pittsburgh, in Game 7 of the memorable 1991 NLCS. Both of those games put a stamp on their careers that never, ever faded with age.

But if you travel back to the beginning of postseason time, you find only 14 other names on this list. Names like … Sandy Koufax, in Minnesota, in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series. … And Ralph Terry, in San Francisco, in Game 7 of the '62 Series. … And Johnny Podres, in Yankee Stadium, in Game 7, 1955. … And Dizzy Dean, in Tiger Stadium, in Game 7, 1934.

Now obviously, unlike the men in that last paragraph, Hamels didn't paint his Mona Lisa in a Game 7, or in a World Series, let alone both. But in his own way, he might have outpitched all of those men.

In the history of the postseason, no one has ever pitched a series-clinching complete-game shutout with this few hits (five), this many strikeouts (nine) and not a single walk. But Hamels did.

He was pitching against the best lineup in the National League. But like Roy Halladay before him, by the time Hamels was through doing his thing, it was tough to tell the Reds from the Tri-City Dust Devils.

This was Hamels' show, from first act to last. Four of the five hits he allowed were ground-ball singles. Only two Reds made it past first base. Nobody got beyond second base. He ran just four three-ball counts, never more than one in an inning. He never allowed more than one baserunner in any inning.

Now compare that with the Cole Hamels who gave up 25 hits in 19 innings last postseason. Compare his 119-pitch efficiency with the guy who huffed and puffed his way through 94 pitches in 4 1/3 innings in Game 5 of last year's NLCS. The name on the back of his uniform still says "Hamels." But make no mistake about it. This is not the same man.

"He's so mentally strong right now," closer Brad Lidge said. "Not that he wasn't pitching well last year. I just feel like this year he's just gone to that next level. He just stays locked in for the entire game. I really felt tonight like, from pitch one to the last pitch, he didn't change his demeanor or his approach one iota. It didn't matter what was happening behind him. It didn't matter that we missed a pop foul that fell in. Whatever. He just went right back to work.

"He was like a machine tonight. That, to me, is the difference this year. He's always had great stuff. But he's running like a machine right now."

Since the beginning of July, Hamels now has a 2.15 ERA. Not a single left-handed starter in baseball can beat that. The best hitters on earth have batted just .219 against him in that span. He's piled up 130 strikeouts, and only 28 walks, in 125 1/3 innings.

"I think this year he came back with something to prove," teammate Ryan Howard said. "I'm not necessarily sure whether he wanted to prove it to everyone else or to himself. But you could see it in his work ethic since last offseason. He was determined to get back to this level."

But until his special Sunday night on the prime-time October stage, had anyone outside his own city and his own clubhouse really noticed?

It's both Hamels' great fortune -- and misfortune -- to pitch for a team that collects aces the way some people collect autographs. So with the Phillies airlifting a Halladay or a Roy Oswalt into town every few months, you would have to have been paying awfully close attention to catch on to the fact that Hamels has been as good as either of them for months now.

But October has a way of correcting those sorts of oversights. And three games into this little tournament, it's frighteningly apparent what the Phillies have going for them these days.

As the rubble of this series settled around him Sunday night, Reds manager Dusty Baker compared the Phillies' rotation to the Jim Palmer-Dave McNally-Mike Cuellar Orioles -- of four decades ago. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel invoked the names of the holy Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine trinity.

Got any other legendary groups you'd like to toss in there? Be our guest. This conversation will be raging for as long as the Phillies are playing this month. And you can start the conversation with the exhibition these men put on over the past week.

• Just in this series, Halladay and Hamels became the first teammates to twirl complete-game shutouts in the same postseason series since Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman did it for Oakland in the 1974 LCS.

• No National League team had gotten shutouts by teammates in the same series since Koufax and Claude Osteen did it for the Dodgers in the '65 World Series.

• And only one other team had ever had more than one pitcher throw a shutout in a postseason sweep -- the 1966 Orioles, who had Palmer, McNally and Wally Bunker all do it in a blitz of the Dodgers.

But for now, it isn't very important to these Phillies where this staff fits in history. They're slightly more concerned, for some reason, with where this group might be able to lead them in the next 3½ weeks.

"What other team in the big leagues right now has three aces?" wondered right fielder Jayson Werth. "They may have a No. 1, 2 and 3 starter, or maybe two potential aces and maybe another guy. But we've got three. … Who'd have thunk it?"

In this series, those three aces held the highest-scoring lineup in the National League to a total of 10 hits and three earned runs in 23 innings, with 22 strikeouts and only two walks. So the Reds weren't going to have a whole lot of margin for error to begin with. But when they then went out and became just the sixth team in the past 99 years to pile up more errors (seven) than runs (four) in a postseason series, that pretty much guaranteed that the closest they'd be getting to the NLCS was watching it on their plasmas.

Still, crazy stuff can happen as long as they let you keep playing. And when Brandon Phillips slapped a leadoff single past Placido Polanco to kick off the ninth inning Sunday, it brought the tying run to the plate -- and set up this series' final moment of truth:

Werth What other team in the big leagues right now has three aces? They may have a No. 1, 2 and 3 starter, or maybe two potential aces and maybe another guy. But we've got three. … Who'd have thunk it?

-- Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth

Cole Hamels versus the likely MVP -- Joey Votto.

"He's had a tremendous year," Hamels said of Votto. "And I think he's not going to give in. I think that's where I had to bear down with him, because at any moment, he can hit a home run to any side of the ballpark. … [And] in their home ballpark, they can take the energy and steal it from you."

So Hamels stood tall on the mound, doing his best to ignore the towel-spinning bedlam around him. Votto adjusted his helmet, tapped home plate with his bat and dug in.

But Hamels painted the outside corner with two straight four-seamers, and Votto was quickly buried in an 0-2 count. Votto laid off a two-strike pitch in the dirt, then stepped out to gather himself one more time.

Votto tapped his spikes, edged back in and rocked in the box. Hamels took a deep breath and pulled the string on one of the biggest changeups of his career. Votto rolled it over, and tapped it directly into the glove of Chase Utley. And one 4-6-3 double play later, this series was all but over.

Hamels took care of the rest, blowing a 95 mph inferno-ball past Scott Rolen for his ninth and final whiff, and 27th out of a special night. But it was that changeup to Votto that was "not only the pitch of the game," Werth said, "but, right now, the pitch of the season."

"You've got your MVP up there," Werth said. "A guy on first. The tying run up there. Cole's close to 110 pitches. Even a single right there, and who knows where that game goes. But Cole throws that pitch, and it's over. That was the end of it."

Well, it may have been the end of a series. But for a team heading for its third straight NLCS, this was just the beginning. And for the man on the mound, it was something even more powerful.

For Cole Hamels, this wasn't just a victory, and it wasn't just a shutout.

For the man on the mound, this was redemption.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.