SAN DIEGO -- Since the opening of the 2008 season, the Philadelphia Phillies have been a team built around offense, a team whose equation for returning to the playoffs was largely based on a lineup that would pound teams into submission and overcome what was perceived to be uncertain pitching.
So much for theories. The Phillies arrive to tonight's ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week against the San Diego Padres, the last-place team in the National League West, with a struggling offense that has hit .203 in August while averaging three runs per game. And with their parade of sluggers, a group that is led by the past two NL MVPs, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, slumping and unable to generate any consistency, the Phillies find themselves trying to stay afloat in the NL East by relying on -- you guessed it -- their pitching.
Personifying this ongoing case of split baseball personality has been the Phillies' ace Cole Hamels, who starts tonight in his hometown. Hamels has not won in his past seven starts despite allowing only two earned runs in five of those starts, and despite being among the league leaders in innings pitched, strikeouts and opponents' batting average. In other words, Hamels has had a season of outstanding pitching performances that have so far translated into only nine wins, largely due to an offense that has provided him an average of only four runs per start.
"Yeah, it's been a little frustrating and to tell you the truth, if I had not had a couple of years of experience behind me, I don't know how I'd be handling it," said Hamels, who pitches tonight in front of dozens of family members and friends. "When you're still in high school, you feel like you can win games by yourself. You're used to being not only the best pitcher, but one of the best hitters. So you usually have a chance of winning your own games. But I'm not going to make a difference hitting at this level and I've had to get used to depending on the lineup.
"So this has been as tough a stretch as I've ever experienced. But the thing is that I have loads of faith in the ability of these guys in our clubhouse. I still believe we are the best team in our division and that all this talent is going to start playing like we're supposed to."
The urgency is beginning to build around the Phillies. They've suddenly fallen two games behind the first-place New York Mets following an 8-3 loss to the Padres on Saturday night. Philadelphia is just 1-5 during its current West Coast trip that ends tonight in Petco Park.
One advantage owned by the Phillies, however, is the memory of last season when they took the division title away from the Mets with a furious September finish.
"There's no question that having gone through last season gives us a lot of confidence in our ability to get the job done," Hamels said. "We can't count on doing it the same away again, but we also know from last year what we're capable of doing if we keep pushing. We know what kind of talent we have."
Every time Hamels returns to pitch in San Diego, he is inevitably reminded of how his career almost ended before it began. Hamels fractured a bone in his pitching arm prior to his junior year at Rancho Bernardo High School, one of the country's baseball powerhouses that has produced a number of top draft picks in recent years. Included in that is the Padres' 2008 first-round selection, Allan Dykstra, who signed his professional contract shortly before Friday's deadline for draft picks to sign.
For Hamels, he was presented with potentially dire circumstances in the days immediately following his injury, which required surgery to insert iron rods in his arm to facilitate healing.
"I remember in the first few days how the doctor asked me if I played any other sports except baseball," Hamels said. "I told him that baseball was everything for me. Then he asked me if I played any position besides pitcher. And I told him that being a pitcher was all I had ever wanted to be.
"When you hear questions like that, you sort of start seeing your dreams start to fade away. But after the rods were removed after about six months and after all the therapy and rehab I went through, I was allowed to start throwing almost a year to the day that I was injured. Everything went fine from then on and here I am, coming home to pitch again as a big league starter for the Phillies.
"It's always a great kick to pitch here in San Diego. I always look forward to pitching in front of my parents and people I've known all my life. And this game will be a big one for me because it's a game we really need. These are the dog days of the season and we need to start picking each other up."
Nothing would pick the Phillies up more than a run explosion, something that continues to elude them. On Saturday night, they came out and scored three runs against Padres newcomer Chad Reineke, who was making his major league debut, losing 8-3. In what has become a far too familiar scenario, the Phillies scored only one run in the final eight innings on Saturday while San Diego was handing Philadelphia starter Kyle Kendrick his second lopsided beating this week.
But considering how consistently well Hamels has pitched all season, the Phillies probably like their chances tonight if they can get him some early runs in a game that looms as being as must-win a contest as one can be in the middle of August.
Peter Pascarelli is the lead researcher for "Sunday Night Baseball." He will preview each Sunday night game all season long. He is also co-host of the Baseball Today podcast, which runs Monday through Friday on ESPN.com.