ATLANTA - When Cole Hamels last pitched, the Toronto Blue Jays chased him from Friday's game in the fifth inning. Hamels, angry with himself and the world, earned an ejection on the way out.
That seemed like a low point in the season, but with tonight's 11-1 loss to Atlanta at Turner Field, the Phillies quickly circled back to their darkest moment.
Hamels' exit was calmer, but his performance was even worse. The pitcher allowed nine hits and seven runs in four-plus innings, and trudged off the mound with his head down. And just like in Friday's game, which provoked a rare team meeting, the Phillies waited until the seventh inning for their first hit off Jair Jurrjens. They are now just a half-game in front of Florida in the National League East, and Jimmy Rollins is hitless in his last 27 at-bats.
Hamels' dominance was the engine that propelled the team last fall, but he has not yet functioned as an ace this year. This Phillies have won just six of his 15 starts, and he has not earned a win since June 4. The pitcher insisted tonight that he was healthy, despite the recent results and a fastball that failed to climb out of the high 80s after the third inning.
"My body feels good," he said. "This is a rough year. It is a challenging year."
After last season's October euphoria, Hamels and the Phillies have been inconsistent. Both pitcher and team are struggling to explain why. "I can't really put the pinpoint on it," he said. "I've been hectic and good, hectic and good. . . . I haven't been able to get guys out, and I've been leaving pitches over the plate."
"His breaking ball could have been better," said manager Charlie Manuel, seeming more worried than angry. "But I thought his stuff was pretty good. I think they were looking for pitches and they were getting some and that's why they were hitting them, I guess. I couldn't tell a whole lot of difference in his stuff."
The ace's struggles, though unfortunate for the team, have not been nearly as mysterious or severe as the leadoff hitter's. Rollins went hitless in three at-bats, drew a walk and stole a base. His batting average is .205, and he is 0 for 8 in two games since Manuel rested him for four games.
Despite the persistence of his slump, Rollins did not feel that the layoff harmed him. "No, I doubt it," he said. "I don't feel worse, so that's a good thing. . . . For a few days, I could go to that hotel and not worry about baseball. I was on vacation. I was on vacation in the clubhouse.
"But that's what [Manuel] wanted me to do. He didn't want me to worry about the results or anything, but that's not natural. But the point was just to do whatever, and don't worry about the team's performance. In a sense, be greedy. Take care of yourself and don't worry about anybody else. But that's just not me. I hear what he's saying, but it's kind of hard for me to be like that."
Rollins remains a troubling enigma, and Hamels is becoming one. It has been a difficult comedown for two stars, both of whom savored their most memorable victory late last year.
"This game can be extremely exciting at points and extremely frustrating," Hamels said. "You can never master it."