Feeding off the atmosphere provided by 39,322 raucous fans at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night, Mike Hampton helped the Braves gain a 3-2 win over the Phillies, who now find themselves just 1 1/2 games in front of the Mets in the National League East standings.
"We played great tonight," Hampton said. "We got some clutch hits, played good defense and the bullpen was good. It was just a good win in a pressure situation."
With three scoreless innings provided by his bullpen, Hampton, who allowed two earned runs and six hits in six innings, enjoyed his first win in seven starts, dating back to Aug. 16. For the Braves, this was just their third win in 17 games against the Phillies this year. Atlanta's previous victory against Philadelphia came on July 25, one day before Hampton made his long-anticipated return to the mound after missing nearly three full years while recovering from elbow surgeries and battling other physical ailments.
"It felt good to get a win," Hampton said. "This game was like a playoff game for me."
This was the third straight start in which Hampton was pitted against either Johan Santana or Hamels, who are two of the NL's top left-handed pitchers.
With some assistance from Kelly Johnson, whose first-inning RBI double extended his hitting streak to 21 games, and Casey Kotchman, who delivered a decisive sixth-inning solo homer, Hampton won this revenge encounter against Hamels, who had gone 6-0 with a 2.96 ERA in his previous eight starts against the Braves.
Kotchman's solo shot was his second homer since joining the Braves on July 29 and the third time he went deep against Hamels this year. While with the Angels on June 22, the 25-year-old first baseman homered in his first career at-bat against the 24-year-old left-hander. The other homer came last Thursday at Turner Field.
Hamels, who allowed three runs -- two earned -- and eight hits in seven innings, lost to the Braves for the first time since Aug. 8, 2006. The unearned run he surrendered came when he botched a pickoff attempt after seemingly having Johnson picked off second base in the third inning. The Braves' second baseman continued toward third base and came home when the Phillies hurler made an errant throw into foul territory in left field.
While Hamels made some costly mistakes, Hampton used his sinker to pitch around some potential early damage. He induced double-play groundouts in both of the first two innings and another timely ground ball in the sixth inning after Ryan Howard tripled and scored on a Pat Burrell grounder.
Hampton's successful outing was aided by the relocation of his cutter, a pitch that had looked more like a slider when he wasn't able to provide optimal velocity earlier this season. The pitch forced the Phillies to look for something other than his patented sinker.
"It was dynamite," manager Bobby Cox said of the cutter. "That's some kind of pitch."
While the Phillies are in enviable postseason position, the Braves are left to spend the season's final days wondering about what might have been had their pitching staff not been decimated by injuries.
Providing one of the greatest oddities of the season, Hampton has spent the season's final two month as the rotation's only healthy veteran starter, and in the process, has steadily silenced the critics, who didn't believe he could stay healthy.
"He pitched an unbelievable game again tonight," Braves catcher Brian McCann said of Hampton, who has allowed three earned runs or less in seven of his past eight starts.
While Cox said that he hasn't made a decision, it seems likely that Hampton will start Sunday afternoon's season finale against the Astros in place of Jair Jurrjens, who has already thrown more than 40 more innings than he had during any previous professional season.
Both Jurrjens and Hampton said last week that they would gladly accept this decision. The 35-year-old Hampton, who is in the final season of his eight-year, $121 million contract, would look forward to the opportunity to make one more good impression on the Braves or any other team that may want his services next year.
Hampton, who has been with the Braves since 2003, would welcome a return to Atlanta and is well aware of the probability that no Major League team is going to offer him much more than a one-year deal that includes incentives.
"It's always a possibility," Hampton said of returning to the Braves. "The organization has been great. They stuck with me through some of the roughest stretches of my career."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.