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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 21, 2010

MLB: Phillies pitcher Hamels confident 2009 woes are behind him

By David Murphy
Philadelphia Daily News

CLEARWATER, Fla. In many ways, it sounded like your typical family road trip, one that 20 years from now will be the subject of reminiscing at many a holiday gathering. The young father at the wheel, his wife to his right, their four-month-old son strapped into a car seat. There was an hourslong battle with traffic along the Beltway, a freak snowstorm in North Carolina that stranded them for a night south of Rocky Mount, and plenty of breaks to comfort the crying coming from the back.

If your last memory of Cole Hamels was a frustrated young pitcher walking off a mound on an unseasonably warm Halloween night, his performance in Game 3 of the World Series finished after only 4 1/3 innings, maybe it is time for an update.

Because if you take Charlie Manuel and his trusted pitching coach at their word, this much is clear: When Hamels arrived in Clearwater last Sunday, he didn't just arrive as a new father with his budding family in tow, he arrived as a stronger, wiser, more mature pitcher.

"The biggest problem with Cole last year, in my opinion, is he pitched with a lot of anger, with himself mostly," said Rich Dubee, who last season faced the sometimes arduous task of coaching Hamels through what might have been the toughest season of his baseball life. "He's such a perfectionist that you don't pitch with anger, and he really wasn't nearly as focused as he was the two previous years. He expects a lot out of himself, not unlike most guys in that clubhouse, but your expectations of what you want and the way you approach it are very, very important, and his approach wasn't very good last year."

Throughout the hoopla that surrounded the Phillies' dramatic December decision to trade away postseason star Cliff Lee and trade for the even more impressive Roy Halladay, members of the front office spoke with a firm conviction about the top of their rotation. While much of the baseball punditry wondered at the wisdom of trading away the chance at possessing the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his colleagues spoke as if there was no risk at all. In fact, on the first day of official spring workouts at the Carpenter Complex Thursday, you couldn't shake the feeling that they still believe they have it.

Determining the validity of this belief will take months, if not longer. For all of Hamels' dazzling qualities the fastball, the changeup, the World Series MVP he won in 2008 and the 3.09 ERA and 227 2/3 innings he logged that regular season he is still coming off a season in which he went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA in 193 2/3 innings. By most standards, it was a solid campaign. But it was far less than most world champions need out of their No. 2 pitcher, a fact driven home by Hamels' abysmal postseason, when he failed to complete six innings in any of his four starts and drew his coaches' ire with a couple of well-publicized lapses in composure on the mound.

Still, listen to Dubee, and Manuel, and Hamels, and you can't help but give credence to their optimism. According to all parties, the now-26-year-old lefty reported to Clearwater in the best pitching shape of his career, the result of a new offseason throwing program designed to avoid the rust that plagued him last spring.

"I definitely feel more comfortable," Hamels said. "I don't think I'm going to have those aches and pains I had through spring training and not being able to start off the year the way I wanted to. I think this is going to be a really good year. With the teammates we have and the acquisition of Roy, it's pretty set up for some high success."

From one perspective, the slump Hamels endured if that's what you call a season in which the only things that prevented him from surpassing 200 innings were a couple of fluke injuries in his first three starts was the natural order of things. He threw a career-high 262 1/3 innings in 2008, including 35 high-stress frames in the playoffs. Since 1980, only three other pitchers under 25 have thrown so much in one of their first three seasons in the majors, and Hamels is the only one to do it since Steve Avery in 1992 (Roger Clemens in 1986 and Dwight Gooden in 1985 were the other two).

"You look in all the books that you want to look in. Look at a guy who has pitched less than 200 minor league innings, and look at a guy who had that much workload the next two years you won't find too many, if you find any at all," Dubee said. "His talent, and his success, caused problems also, because he was so damn good, and so efficient, that his workload jumped dramatically."

Hamels spent much of last season trying to enjoy the spoils of success: appearing on television shows, receiving awards at banquets, filming commercials. He didn't, however, spend much time throwing, a mistake he made sure not to repeat this time around. He spoke with longtime family friend Mark Prior, the former Cubs ace who endured similar struggles after his breakout season in 2003. Rather than letting his arm calcify, he played catch throughout the offseason, even bringing his glove and ball on vacation and finding a vacant tennis court to throw.

"If you play catch and do the little things, you can keep yourself on a good maintenance," Hamels said, "instead of going from a high all the way down back trying to rev it up again."

The result, according to Dubee, is a pitcher who is well ahead of the one who reported to spring training in 2009 with a fastball that barely cracked 80.

Hamels also spoke by phone with Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, who provided some insight on developing a cutter to complement his fastball, changeup and curveball.

"You watch him long toss right now, he's far beyond where he's ever been in spring training," Dubee said. "And he deserves a lot of credit for that ... He could have gone home and sulked again and said, 'Oh, what do they know?' He didn't do that. He went home and did what he had to do."

And now, Hamels can concentrate on improving. While both he and Dubee sounded skeptical about the cutter becoming a regular piece of his arsenal, Hamels' fresh arm will enable him to work extensively on a curveball whose consistency eluded him last season.

It is a long way from Clearwater to Philadelphia. But Hamels looks to be halfway there.