CLEARWATER, Fla. - Take a deep breath. Relax. Cole Hamels didn't forget how to throw his changeup. In fact, he's still pretty darn good at it.
Yesterday afternoon, against one of the top up-and-coming lineups in the game, the young lefthander silenced the alarm bells clanging in the minds of Phillies fans with a picturesque preseason performance against the Tampa Bay Rays.
It was only spring training, but the beauty in Hamels' performance nevertheless shone through: Twenty-one batters faced, 16 first-pitch strikes, two hits, one run, a perfect game through 4 2/3, a changeup that hitters still haven't discovered the answer to.
As he walked off the field toward the clubhouse after the sixth inning, fans along the third-base line treated him to what is believed to be the first standing ovation a Phillies starter has received all spring.
"Today I was able to almost close my eyes and throw it and know exactly where it was going to go," Hamels said about his performance in the Phillies' 4-2 win. "That's good to see. I just need to repeat it when it really counts."
Hamels opened up the game by striking out Tampa Bay second baseman Eliot Johnson. In the third, he struck out shortstop Reid Brignac on a beautiful off-speed pitch, then retired centerfielder Jon Weber and pitcher Matt Garza swinging.
His only mistake came with two outs in the fifth inning, when he threw an 0-2 fastball that top prospect Evan Longoria knocked over the leftfield fence for a solo home run, the Rays' first hit of the game. Hamels then gave up a single to Brignac before getting Weber to fly out to end the inning.
In the sixth, he struck out Rays star Carl Crawford, his seventh of the game.
The final line: Six innings pitched, two hits, one run, seven strikeouts, no walks, and an ERA that dropped from 12.60 to 6.55.
"Hamels looked good," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He had good command. He threw some pretty good breaking balls."
At no point have the Phillies been concerned about Hamels' performance this spring. Last year, he went 1-3 with a 6.10 ERA in March.
But his outing against the Rays was a good reminder of the pitcher the Phillies believe they have, as well as the potential lethality of a 1-2 punch of Hamels and Brett Myers at the top of the rotation. After the game, pitching coach Rich Dubee said he thinks that Hamels is already in an elite group of starters that includes the game's most reliable arms.
"I thought he was one of the top five or six last year," Dubee said. "I think if you talked around and asked opposing hitters, I would think that they would say he was in the upper echelon."
For Hamels to join that elite group of pitchers that includes names like Oswalt and Santana, he merely has to pitch more innings. The past 2 years, Hamels has missed time to injury. Last season, he spent close to a month on the disabled list with an elbow strain and ended up starting 28 games and pitching 183 1/3 innings. If Hamels can get those two numbers over 30 and 200, there is no telling how dominant he could be.
"That's the big thing - staying healthy, taking the ball every 5 days, getting over 200 innings, those are things, you're talking in the upper echelon, that's what your big-time starting pitchers do," Dubee said.
Hamels pitched two complete games last season and averaged more than six innings per start. Project his numbers over a 162-game season and here is what you get: 18 wins, 223 innings and 215 strikeouts.
"If he can stay healthy and everything," Manuel said, "I think he's definitely capable of winning 20 games.
"At the same time, I'm still concerned about the fact that you have to watch him because of his past history of getting hurt. But when he's pitching good, why not turn him loose?"
Had yesterday's win over the Rays - the Phillies' third straight - come during the regular season, you likely would have seen Hamels going the distance. Through six innings, he had thrown just 74 pitches. His only baserunner in his final inning reached on an error.
Hamels said he still has some work to do. He still has some velocity to gain - he said he was topping out around 88 mph; normally, he's in the 90-92 range - and would like to perfect his changeup.
That said, his performance yesterday, coupled with Sunday's solid outing by Opening Day starter Brett Myers, were positive signs.
"It's good to see those two guys throw the ball like that," Manuel said. "It's exactly what we need." *