MLB/Phillies Countdown: 11 (Frigid) Days Until Pitchers and Catchers Report
To Phillies fans stuck in and around the improbably frozen tundra of the City of Brotherly Love, any warm glow emanating from baseball's hot stove is a most welcome thing.
Baseball's hot stove was scorching last December when Cliff Lee, quite enthusiastically, donned the red pinstripes and turned an already amazing rotation of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels into a four-headed monstrosity that some have nicknamed The Four Aces.
Admittedly, it would have been thrilling to have the Philly ice melt into a full season of H20, but thoughts of the Four Aces (or R2C2, if you prefer) has a majority of Phillies Nation jumping out of their skin in anticipation of an amazing 2011.
The Phillies have an experienced, steady-as-they-come manager in Charlie Manuel, a still potent (if slightly aging) lineup and they generally play terrific defense. Put all this behind baseball's most vaunted starting rotation in decades, and there is great cause for optimism around these parts.
You already know the resumes of R2C2, but let's refresh our recollections:
Roy Halladay: Defending (unanimous) National League Cy Young Award winner, a surefire Hall of Famer and the author of a regular season perfect game and a postseason no-hitter last year.
Cliff Lee: A former AL Cy Young Award winner and still widely considered the best big game starting pitcher in baseball. When last here, he did all that was humanly possible to lead us to another World Series title, and he did so in the coolest way possible.
Roy Oswalt: A longtime ace of the Houston Astros, he came to South Philly at the trading deadline last year, and may have been the Phillies best pitcher down the stretch.
Which brings us back to Cole Hamels, who has quietly settled in as the No. 4 starter, which has to be a nightmare for opposing hitters to ponder.
Ironically, Hamels is the youngest member of R2C2, but the one with the greatest seniority as a Phillie. In baseball, it's only a few years journey from young phenom to veteran and Cole has traveled that path in a unique way.
In 2006, he was promoted to the show in midseason as a twenty-two year old future ace for a team that did not have one, let alone three or four. In 22 starts, he was 9-8/4.08 with 145 strikeouts in only 132.1 innings. Could he, indeed, be an ace down the line for a team in desperate need of one?
Hamels fulfilled much of his great promise the very next year, which not so coincidentally saw the Phillies make the playoffs for the first time since that wild bunch of 1993.
If Cole watched the World Series runner-up team full of personalities including Curt Schilling, Dutch Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk and Mitch Williams, he did so from the perspective of a nine year-old. Does that put Phillies baseball in some perspective?
On the hill, the 23-year-old lanky lefty went 15-5 with a terrific 3.39 ERA. He made his first all-star team and finished sixth in the Cy Young balloting. He lost his one playoff start, pitching a fairly good game against the Rockies in the NLDS.
In 2008, Hamels' 14-10 record belied how well he pitched. His ERA dipped to 3.08 (sixth in the NL) and he set career highs in many categories, including starts, innings and shutouts. As well as he pitched, he was just warming up for a remarkable postseason.
Hamels baffled the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays alike in compiling one of the best postseasons for a starting pitcher in baseball history. That’s not empty hyperbole; he was that commanding.
Hamels was 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA, yielding only 23 hits and 9 walks in 35 innings. He fanned 30 batters, and walked off with the NLCS and World Series MVPs for a franchise that had not been to the top of the mountain since 1980.
From the pinnacle of 2008, Hamels—for whatever reasons—suffered through a miserable 2009. If the whole team suffered a hangover, it may have been disregarded, but Cole had a 10-11 season for a great club and he achieved that mediocre record on merit.
Hamels’ ERA ballooned to new heights (4.32) in 2009, which is not a good thing—except for opposing hitters. A look inside the numbers showed that Hamels’ strikeout and walk ratios were actually a little better than in 2008, but he got hit around much more.
It seemed that he would always serve up the wrong pitch at the wrong time. When he pitched himself into jams, or if an error was made behind him, he lost the knack for wriggling out of it.
The acquisition of Cliff Lee, who became an instant hero to Philadelphians, seemed like it would help shake Hamels out of his slump, but it never did.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that if Hamels pitched like even a decent Number Two behind Lee in the 2009 playoffs, that the Phillies could have repeated as world champions. He did not, the team did not, and before you knew it, the fans had a target for their venom—a 25-year-old would-be ace who was one of the main reasons that the team, and the city, was drenched in champagne and honored with parades just 12 months prior.
For his part, Hamels just was never “that guy” in the 2009 playoffs, and he also came off as petulant on the field (gesturing in disgust when second baseman and team leader Chase Utley made an errant throw) and off (baring his soul and liver to the press in a comment that was construed as "I want this season to end right now; so what if we’re in the World Series").
Perhaps, Hamels deserved a mulligan for all this, but he did not get one from most of the Philly sports community. It would be a gross simplification for me to suggest that a majority of fans wanted him shipped out of town, but it would also be a distortion to not acknowledge that there were many questions and labels thrown at Hamels for the first time as the Phillies entered 2009.
Some of the labels were “immature,” “whiny”, “soft” and “not a Philly guy.”
These can be hard labels to shed in a city that can be hard on its would-be superstars. And then there were the actual baseball questions to answer.
Could a (primarily) two-pitch hurler, without a great fastball, continue to succeed?
Has the league caught up with him?
Were his 2007 and 2008 seasons the true aberrations?
Indeed, even to his toughest critics, Hamels shed those pejorative labels last year, and answered all of the baseball questions in the most reassuring of ways. He pitched extremely well, and kept his poise even when things were not going is way.
The Phillies offense scored fewer runs in 2010, and often forgot to score at all when it was Cole’s turn on the hill. Still, Hamels kept taking the ball, pitching one quality start after another. His regular season record was only 12-11, despite a career-low ERA of 3.02.
During one cruel stretch, the talented southpaw was winless in eight consecutive starts, while compiling a 2.83 ERA. In those 54 innings, he struck out 63 batters, walked only 11 and yielded only 44 hits. For a reminder of that stretch, please see:
To his everlasting credit, Cole never showed frustration with his teammates, saying all the right things in interviews, and continually bringing, and improving upon, his A game.
In his first playoff start last October, Hamels cruised into Cincinnati (featuring a tough ballpark and a scary lineup) and closed out the series with a complete game shutout.
Hamels’ journey has already been fascinating, and he appears to just be hitting his prime years.
His fastball showed a little more bite last year, making his changeup all the more devastating, and vice-versa. He also now displays greater confidence in his curveball (now being tossed into the mix, with an occasional split finger thrown in for good measure), which increases the effectiveness of his full array of pitches.
It appears that all the elements are in place for Cole Hamels to have his best season yet.
And even if things don’t go well immediately, it also appears that the now 27-year-old veteran has the command and maturity to not let those circumstances derail him and his team from a memorable season.
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