DENVER — The Phillies will have played for 24 days when Cole Hamels throws his first pitch Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. That, in all likelihood, is the return date for Hamels. It will mark the franchise's longest period without its homegrown, lefthanded ace since 2007.

They crave his presence.

"It's pretty much right on schedule when you think about it," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said.

There is still some internal debate whether to start Hamels on Tuesday or Wednesday, but Sandberg believed Wednesday was best because that order places A.J. Burnett between Cliff Lee and Hamels, his two lefthanded starters.

Hamels was assigned a locker at Coors Field but was not with the team Friday. He pitched seven innings on 81 pitches Thursday at single-A Clearwater. He will throw a bullpen session this weekend in Colorado.

Biceps tendinitis in late November derailed Hamels' winter throwing program. He reported to spring training a few weeks behind the other arms, but expected to miss one or two starts. The timetable changed March 1 when Hamels experienced more soreness once he accelerated his spring regimen.

That raised doubt about Hamels' chances of pitching in April. But after five starts — three for Clearwater and two in minor-league scrimmages — the Phillies feel confident about their ace's ability.

"It's still taken some time, but he's gone about it like a spring training with normal progression of pitches," Sandberg said. "But he's built up now to no restrictions with him. So it's like a shortened version of a spring training."

Part of the thinking for pitching Hamels on Wednesday is that his next two scheduled starts would come at Citizens Bank Park. (A Tuesday start would align Hamels for Sunday's road trip finale in Arizona, a venue he dislikes.) He would start the first game of a seven-game homestand April 29 vs. New York. His next two outings would come against Toronto and New York again.

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