THE CEILING is so high for Cole Hamels it's frightening.

You look at his magnificent physical tools. You marvel at the confidence, desire and uncanny savvy from a guy in just his first full major league season.

You see this total package wrapped up in a lefthanded ace who's just 23 years old and it's scary - scary because of how good Hamels could become and even scarier because of the pitfalls that could prevent him from ever getting there.

"For myself, it's just to go out there and feel good," Hamels said. "As long as I feel healthy, I know I can go out there and succeed."

Mark Prior went on the disabled list on Tuesday - out for the season after surgery on his right shoulder.

Technically, it is not considered career threatening - but Prior, who just 4 years ago looked like the next great pitcher, was already at a crossroad in his career.

Four seasons ago, Prior - then a 22-year-old phenom with the Chicago Cubs - posted an 18-6 record with a 2.43 ERA. He struck out 245 in 211 innings and finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

I remember many analysts saying back then that Prior's pitching motion was nearly flawless - so smooth and effortless that he would never suffer the injuries that have ruined so many promising careers.

Then, of course, the injuries came.

He's been on the disabled list in each of the past three seasons, and now he's done for 2007 without pitching an inning in the big leagues.

The only question remaining is will he be able to recover enough to have some semblance of a career, or will 2003 just remain a sad reminder of how good Prior could have been?

"When you see pitchers, it doesn't matter if they are young or old, they get hurt a lot," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "The good thing is that with the systems they have now for surgeries and things, I know they can come back much quicker than they did 25 or 30 years ago. Unfortunately, sometimes a guy hurts his arm so bad he can't ever come back. That's kind of the way it goes in this game."

None of that, of course, has anything to do with Hamels.

The only injury he's had thus far is breaking his pitching hand in a fight in 2005.

Whatever "it" is for a big-time pitching prospect, Hamels has it.

Even in yesterday's 4-2 loss to the Washington Nationals, Hamels displayed some of the things that have people projecting him as the Phillies' best pitcher since Steve Carlton.

It's easy to see that in Hamels when he pitches lights out, like he did in his last start against Cincinnati, throwing a complete game with 15 strikeouts.

But sometimes the true measure of a great pitcher is displayed when things don't go as well as planned.

"I think sometimes I can get a little trouble for myself when I try to be better than good, when good would have been enough to succeed," said Hamels, who gave up four earned runs and eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. "When you try to be better, you end up making some mistakes here and there.

"You have to keep within yourself. When you're not composed, it can hurt you.

"Today I was feeling good those first five innings, then in the sixth I definitely got out of my comfort zone and bad things happened."

Up-and-down outings are just part of the large learning curve all pitchers go through at the start of their careers.

What you want to know about a young pitcher is, "Does this guy get it? Is he capable of analyzing what happened so that it becomes a valuable lesson?"

That is clearly the case with Hamels. He took the lesson from that disastrous three-run sixth inning.

Hamels said veteran pitcher Jamie Moyer told him he was "rushing" after he was taken out of the game.

"He saw exactly what I was doing wrong, as did quite a few people," Hamels said. "It's funny because I knew I was doing it, but I didn't take the time and initiative to calm myself down and actually go out there and relax.

"It's something that I worry and think about because it's something I need to correct."

The thing you like about Hamels is that not only does he have the talent, he has the mentality to bounce back with another low-run, high-strikeout jewel in his next outing.

"You want to be the best at something," Hamels said. "I saw myself being the best pitcher I could possibly be. I want to win and help my team win.

"I can be critical of myself. I'll beat myself up maybe a day or two but then it's back into the next game. You forget about this and just take the positive to try and make myself better. Nobody is going to be perfect, but you always try to." *

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