Apr 072010

by Mike Prince

It’s a simple question, really.

Will Cole Hamels pitch like he did in 2009? Or will he pitch like he did in 2008 and in prior seasons?

No one really knows what to expect. Then again, no one really knew what to expect last year. Every game that ‘King Cole’ stepped on to the mound, we as Phillies fans watched closely, hoping and even believing that this would be the game where Hamels got his stuff back – no matter how poorly he had pitched in his previous starts.

But even his money pitch – his changeup– was being hit by opposing teams.

No one will ever forget the horrendous 7.58 ERA that Hamels possessed during the 2009 postseason, just like no one will forget that the 26 year-old southpaw could not get out of the fifth inning during the entire playoff run.

But, like Brad Lidge in 2009, Hamels got a pass.

2008 may go down as the most memorable year in Philadelphia sports history for my generation – a generation that was either born after the last professional team in Philadelphia was crowned champions, or simply was too young to remember the 76ers riding the floats in 1983 or the Tug McGraw throwing his glove up in celebration in 1980.

And again, like Lidge, Hamels had as much to do with this as anyone. Just like saving 48 games in 48 save situations, going 4-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA and having your team win every game you start in will give you a pass.

As angry as Phillies fans got at Lidge and Hamels at certain times of last season – primarily the postseason – most still gave them a pass.

For the most part, I did.

Lidge can sit out the entire 2010 season and I would still believe that every player that was given up in the trade to bring him to Philadelphia was worth it. Lidge can blow as many saves as he did in 2009, and I still believe that every penny of the $36 million contract he signed last May was worth it, if not just for the memory of hearing Harry Kalas call the final out in 2008, or to watch Shane Victorino dive into a pile of players that were just crowned as the best in all of Major League Baseball.

But the hangover is over.

More than 18 months have passed since the Phillies rode down Broad Street as kings of the city. The best pitcher in baseball has been brought in. A team that advanced to the World Series just one season ago has upgraded itself and possibly added the final pieces to the puzzle that may bring a repeat of 2008 to the city of Philadelphia.

And because of those expectations, a subpar season will not fly will fans. Another pass will not be granted to Cole Hamels (or anyone else, for that matter).

If the Phillies are going to live up to said expectations, they will need the 2008 World Series MVP to become a dependant number-two behind Roy Halladay.

Hamels worked on his curveball. He added a cutter and he entered Spring Training with a better mindset. Known for often losing his cool and getting frustrated at himself, Hamels has appeared more focused up until now. His fastball velocity seems to be up and his attitude appears to be improved.

But none of what he did during the offseason and in March matters unless he can repeat that on the mound in April…in May…in June…And all the way up until his final start this fall.

Hamels is the most pivotal part of this Phillies team. Their success largely rests on his shoulders. He has proved before that he can handle this kind of pressure, but never as the number-two.

Because of this, the main question for the Phillies shouldn’t be whether or not they should have let Cliff lee go this past offseason. It will be whether or not the Phillies still have two “number-one” pitchers on the roster.

When Lee was traded, many fans said they did not. It’s now Hamels’ job to prove them wrong.

And Wednesday will be his first chance at doing so.