Big Three to go for NL East-leading Phils

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies and Braves begin a three-game series Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, and Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel will run out Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt in succession.

As parting gifts go, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox would have preferred something in a nice leather recliner.

Atlanta's hitters don't need a pre-series scouting meeting to know what's coming: They're in for three days of cold, hard stares, fastballs in the mid-90s, impeccable control and off-the-charts competitiveness. Barring a surprise, we won't see much of Phillies Rule 5 pick David Herndon peeling off his warmup jacket for emergency mopup duty in the fifth.

On the distress meter, facing these three guys in a 48-hour span ranks somewhere between a plague of locusts and watching a "Real Housewives of New Jersey'' marathon.

"I can't think of a better three than those three,'' said Washington first baseman Adam Dunn, who was playing for Billings in the Pioneer League in 1998 when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz posted a combined 55-18 record for Cox in Atlanta. "The only thing you can hope for is that they have one of their two or three bad outings a year.''

Hey, good luck with that.

Since Oswalt slid into the rotation July 30, Philadelphia's "H20'' trio is a combined 18-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 195 to 36. Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt have pitched seven innings or more in 21 of 28 starts, taking the strain off Philadelphia's bullpen and giving the offense time to finally get its act together.

The Phillies, 10 games over .500 and 2½ games behind Atlanta at the July trade deadline, have posted a 33-14 record since then to take a three-game lead over the Braves in the NL East. Atlanta kept pace over the weekend with a three-game sweep of the Mets, and Citizens Bank Park will have an early postseason feel for its 118th, 119th and 120th consecutive sellouts.

This is the scenario that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. envisioned when he acquired Oswalt and cash considerations from Houston for lefty starter J.A. Happ and minor leaguers Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar on July 29, but the praise is more effusive now than it was then. After the Oswalt deal went down, some media members were still asking Amaro the question that bugs him most: Why didn't he just keep Cliff Lee? And if you surveyed scouts around the deadline, lots of them were either concerned about Oswalt's back problems or convinced that Happ was a better long-term bet.

Oswalt has quickly put an end to the second-guessing. After 9½ seasons in Houston, he's become a walking endorsement for the power of the in-season change of scenery. His control has been pinpoint of late and he's making greater use of a changeup that he had thrown sporadically in the past.

"I'm watching him, thinking 'This guy looks like he's reborn,''' said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, whose team lost 9-1 to Oswalt on Friday. "The ball is coming out of his hand good. He's out there firing, pitching inside and using his breaking ball. He looks like he's got a lot of years left.''

How good has Philadelphia's threesome been? Halladay leads the majors in innings pitched, is on the verge of his second 20-win season and might be the front-runner for National League Cy Young, and he's been the most hittable member of the group recently.

As for Hamels, his 11-10 record is nearly as deceptive as Felix Hernandez's 12-11 mark in Seattle. Phillies fans were down on Hamels after his mediocre 2009 season but he made a major commitment to conditioning and throwing over the winter, and it's paying off. His fastball is percolating at 94 mph, he's added a cutter to his repertoire and he's displayed Glavine-esque stoicism amid a puzzling lack of run support. The Phillies have scored two or fewer runs in 13 of his 29 starts, but Hamels keeps going out and throwing gems. He's only 26 years old, so chalk it up to the maturation process.

"I've discovered that in baseball, a pitcher can only get a sign, accept the sign and throw the pitch,'' Hamels said. "It's one of those things where my full focus and full job is to make a pitch whether we have 100 runs or no runs. I've been able to simplify everything. What inning it is, what the score is, where we are in the standings … that doesn't matter.''

It was often said that Atlanta's future Hall of Famers helped make each other better, whether they were pushing each other on the field or bonding on the golf course. Philadelphia's Big Three haven't built that type of synergy yet, but Hamels concedes that there's a different feeling with all that Roy power surrounding him in the rotation.

"It's not as stressful,'' he said. "You don't have to be the guy. I think all three of us know we're very capable of going out there and winning, but at the same time, we don't have to overdo it. We just have to go out there and be ourselves, and the good things will happen.''

All three pitchers have a history of strong finishing kicks. Oswalt has a career record of 63-16 in August and September. Halladay is 26-11 with a 2.50 ERA in September, while Hamels is 12-6 with a 2.69 ERA in September. Either these guys are beating up on all those minor league callups or they find a different gear in the final month.

The same can be said of the Phillies in general. Manuel creates a positive clubhouse vibe that wears well over a long season, and it's no coincidence that the Phillies are relaxed and focused when the pressure ratchets up down the stretch. The Phils are 260-167 in September under Manuel. That's the best record in the NL over the past six years and second-best in the majors behind the Yankees.

This hasn't been the easiest season in Philly. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins' leg injuries are an ongoing concern. Chase Utley went down for seven weeks with a broken thumb. Ryan Howard and Placido Polanco logged time on the disabled list and closer Brad Lidge gave Manuel some palpitations in June and July. But the Phillies kept drawing upon their recent success and tough-mindedness in the clubhouse and had faith that things would turn around eventually.

"You can say whatever you want about the year, but here we are with two weeks left and we have the best record in the NL,'' said right fielder Jayson Werth. "Here's the thing that sticks out in my mind: When you look at the season, not one guy in here has doubted where we were going to be at the end.''

Adam Dunn I can't think of a better three than those three. The only thing you can hope for is that they have one of their two or three bad outings a year.

-- Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn on
facing Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay
and Roy Oswalt

Werth, a free agent this offseason, relates the Phillies' sense of inner calm to a different sporting venue: He got a glimpse of it when he went to see the Flyers play the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals in June.

"I'm sitting there going crazy at this [hockey] game, with this nervousness and anticipation and anxiety and all the emotions that fans go through,'' Werth said. "Then I look at the guys out on the ice and they're calm and collected. They have a job to do no matter how many people are pulling their hair out in the seats. It's hard for fans to really have a sense of that. But it's just different for us as players, because we're out there and we're in control of the situation.''

The Braves, of course, have the extra incentive of winning for Cox, who has only two weeks left in his final regular season as Atlanta manager. He'll send out Brandon Beachy (making his big-league debut in place of injured Jair Jurrjens), Mike Minor and Tommy Hanson -- all 24 and younger -- so Atlanta's pitching future will be on full display.

"I think the Braves take on the personality of Bobby Cox,'' Riggleman said. "Bobby is very positive, he's even-keeled, he's very competitive, and they're not going to be intimidated by anybody's three starters. They'll take the attitude, 'Hey, we've got our work cut out for us, so let's raise it to another level.' Whether they can do it or not, I don't know. But I don't think they'll back away from the challenge at all.''

Hamels, Halladay and Oswalt. September challenges don't come any more daunting than that.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.