Cole Hamels gives Phillies the top trio

Philadelphia Phillies fans have gotten on my case a few times this year. They didn’t like it when I picked them to miss the playoffs before the season. They didn’t like it when I said Ryan Howard was overpaid and overrated. They didn’t like it when I said Michael Bourn might be a better all-around player than Hunter Pence.

So maybe I can get on their good side: Is it possible Cole Hamels is ... underrated? Yes, I know, the Phillies are underrated like the Yankees or Red Sox are underrated; it’s impossible for anybody on their team to be underrated. Heck, Shane Victorino is drumming up MVP support even though he has 53 RBIs -- not that he isn’t deserving of consideration, but if he played for another team, nobody would be paying much attention.

And that’s my point about Hamels this season: Despite being a former World Series MVP, his improved performance has gone largely unrecognized on a national level, lost among Roy Halladay complete games and Cliff Lee shutouts and Howard-prodigious-RBI-man-or-declining-slugger debates, not to mention Pence and Victorino’s big season.

But Phillies fans know how terrific Hamels has been, matching Halladay and Lee game for game, at least until a short stint on the disabled list due to an inflamed shoulder left everyone a bit worried about the state of his left arm. It was a great relief to them when Hamels made his first start since Aug. 12 on Monday and dominated the Reds with a 76-pitch effort over six innings in which he allowed one run, two hits and zero walks while striking out seven. It was vintage Hamels from the first half: get ahead of hitters with pinpoint accuracy on his fastball or cutter, get them to swing and miss the changeup. Hamels added the cut fastball to his repertoire last year, but by all accounts he’s perfected it in 2011.

Hamels didn’t get credit for the win in the Phillies’ 3-2 victory Monday, but he’s now 13-7 with a 2.58 ERA. His batting average allowed is .211, better than Halladay’s .248 and Lee’s .230. His on-base percentage allowed is lower than those of Halladay and Lee. Numbers like that make Hamels perhaps the key player on any team this postseason.

Here’s why: Compare Hamels to other teams’ third starters. The Brewers run out Shaun Marcum or Randy Wolf, both quality starters, but a step below Hamels. With Tommy Hanson's shoulder a big question mark, the Braves would run out rookie Brandon Beachy or shaky veteran Derek Lowe as their third man. Arizona has a solid front two in Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, but Joe Saunders or rookie Josh Collmenter can’t match Hamels. The Red Sox have Josh Beckett and Jon Lester and then a bunch of question marks. The Yankees don’t know who their No. 2 guy is behind CC Sabathia, let alone their No. 3.

A healthy Hamels makes the Phillies the postseason favorites right now. As the Giants proved last year, having a deep rotation is a good way to compensate for a mediocre offense. Sure, the Yankees rode Sabathia on three days’ rest in 2009, but most managers are reluctant to do that these days, meaning you need rotation depth. The No. 3 starter might pitch that crucial third game of the division series when the series is often tied at 1-all. Depending on the length of that series, he might pitch the all-important first game of the league championship series. Or maybe he’ll pitch Game 3 and Game 7. The point is, with three postseason series to get through, you can’t always align your ace to start Game 1 of a series. Having three aces is a huge advantage.

The other reason I like Hamels: He seems more focused this year. Much like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz fed off each other and made each other better, I think Hamels has raised his game while trying to match his heralded Cy Young teammates. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the Braves guys always talked about the fun of outdoing each other, how it helped keep them focused through 35 starts and into the postseason. Great athletes have egos, and I think Hamels’ ego surfaced this year. He wanted to prove he’s on the same level as Halladay and Lee, especially as he gears up for his free agency after next season.

After winning World Series MVP honors in 2008, Hamels would later admit that he probably spent too much time that offseason at dinner engagements and enjoying the attention. His postseason performances in 2009 and 2010 were a little spotty (2-3, 5.03 ERA in six starts), so that’s one more thing for him to prove, that 2008 wasn’t a fluke, that he deserves the reputation of being a big-game pitcher.

And I like his odds of doing exactly that come October.