Apr 082010

by Mike Radano

It was just the second game of the year but for some it was the biggest start of the 2010 season.

Hyperbole? Sure, but there is no doubt that Wednesday night’s outing by Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels was more intently watched than prized acquisition Roy Halladay’s just two days prior.

Halladay’s start was a coronation. There was no concern, no doubt and in it’s place a chance to sit back and enjoy.
Hamels’ start? Well, not so much.

Look, Hamels is the lynchpin of the Phillies rotation. Halladay is the new star and No.1 but Hamels is the key to how this season goes for a franchise looking for a third consecutive appearance in the World Series. In fact, even though the moment Halladay’s name appeared in print as headed to Philadelphia the Phillies became the favorite for the National League title, this season was and is still about Hamels.

A good season from Hamels and maybe fans can finally remove Cliff Lee from everyday conversation. A great season from Hamels and a parade down Broad Street is in the offing. Halladay is a huge addition and there remain concerns about the backend of the bullpen but Hamels remains the focus for 2010.

Can the Phillies win without Hamels at his best? Yes, they did last year. But that doesn’t mean the Phillies want to pace themselves this year and Hamels performance will go a long way in making this yet another season to remember.

So the question was posed, which Hamels would take the mound at Nationals Park On Wednesday night? Would it be the dominant lefty that was named the 2008 World Series MVP or the soft-tossing version that struggled throughout 2009? Would this be the beginning of a season in which Hamels used a third pitch (curveball/cutter) to elevate his game or is this to be a season in which his concentration listlessly drifts in and out of focus?

The answer is simple: After one game there is no answer. There can’t be an answer.

One game is not enough to determine the course of a season for if it were Placido Polanco would be on pace for 486 RBIs and Ryan Howard for 162 home runs.

Stop. Howard will not hit 162 home runs this year so relax.

Back on point, one game is never enough to judge a player and an 8-4 win in Washington that saw Hamels allow a pair of earned runs and walk an unheard of – for Hamels – four batters is just one small frame in a feature length film.

“It’s not necessarily going to be clean and clear,” Hamels told reporters after the game. “You really have to be able to work as hard as you possibly can, and execute one pitch after another. And if you’re not able to get every pitch that you’d like, if you’re not able to hit your spots, you just have to go to the next one and keep plugging away.”

First the negative: Hamels threw just 63 for strikes over 103 pitches.

“I’ve always been a strike thrower, Hamels said. “You pride yourself on not walking guys and being able to execute one pitch after another, but unfortunately sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

Now the positive: Hamels had his velocity. Velocity in turn indicates health and more importantly enables him to throw his changeup more effectively.

The control will be there at some point this year. Remember that the Phillies are just two games into a 162 game schedule in which Hamels projects to make 33 to 35 starts. Hamels is no longer a rookie and can no longer be afforded the excuse that he is still learning but he should be allowed more than one game to get himself in tune.

Last year Hamels admitted he entered the season ill-prepared. A combination of too many banquets, guest appearances, charity events and photo shoots – that Liberty II ad remains more than a bit disturbing – combined with a natural step back physically after throwing over 400 innings in two seasons made Hamels mediocre.

Hamels talent is anything but mediocre and one average start can’t disguise that fact.

“Anytime I go out and feel strong and feel healthy, I think that’s kind of the key,” Hamels said. “You just have to build from there. It’s a foundation for the next start.”

And the start after that and so on and so forth.