ASK COLE HAMELS to compare the way his body feels now with the way he felt at this point last season, and he struggles to come up with an answer.
There is no question his pitching line looks different. Through 29 starts this season, he has a 3.06 ERA, the lowest it has been since he finished Sept. 2 of his heralded 2008 season with a 3.01 mark. Through 29 starts last season, he had a 4.07 ERA.
He is striking out more batters (9.0 per nine vs. 7.9 per nine) and allowing fewer baserunners (1.165 walks/hits per inning vs. 1.286 WHIP) while logging more innings (188 vs. 177).
"It's tough to tell," Hamels said after holding the Marlins to four hits in seven scoreless innings in the Phillies' 10-6 win Wednesday. "Innings do creep on you. It's something where I think truly when you look at any year, 33 starts, 34 starts, whatever you have, there are going to be quite a few starts where you aren't feeling as good as when you have your good stuff or you are healthy or you have more jump in your step or something. But to be healthy, and to be able to execute pitches, and have a good plan, finally be able to attack that plan, I think that's all I can really ask for. And I do."
One of the great misconceptions of the last year in Phillies baseball is that Hamels was never himself in 2009, when he finished the regular season with a 4.32 ERA and then logged four disappointing starts in the postseason.
In fact, he threw two shutouts in his first 29 starts last season, which is two more than he has thrown in his first 29 starts this season. In that same stretch he threw at least eight scoreless innings three times, which is one more than he has right now. He threw at least eight innings and allowed two or fewer runs six times, which is the same number of times he has done it this year.
Yet through 29 starts last season, he looked to be a question mark. Through 29 starts this season, he looks to be an exclamation point on a Phillies team that would have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs if the season ended today. His dominance of the Marlins on Wednesday, when he never allowed a runner to reach third base, ran his scoreless-innings streak to a career-best 25. Not since Randy Wolf went 27 in 2002 has a Phillies starter produced such a run.
To narrow the difference down to one answer would be to minimize the difficulty of a pitcher's job. The most noticeable change is in the velocity on his fastball, which last season sat from 89 to 91 mph and this year has consistently hit 92-94. Last season, he relied almost exclusively on his fastball and changeup, throwing a fastball nearly 60 percent of the time. This year, he has incorporated a fast-improving cutter, a pitch to which he devoted significant attention in spring training. According to FanGraphs.com, about 15 percent of Hamels' pitches have been cutters this season, while his fastball total has dropped to 55 percent.
He also has done an impressive job of locating those pitches. On Wednesday, his fastball did not light up the radar gun like it has for most of the season. Yet by the time his night was over, and he headed to the dugout with a 10-0 lead, he had allowed just five baserunners.
"He didn't have his best fastball. But at the same time, he located the ball good," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I felt like he really kept the ball tight on righthanders inside setting him up, and when he did go away, he took the sting out of their bat, really. He did a good job of pitching."
On several occasions after that performance, Hamels referred to the cerebral side of pitching. One pitch at a time, then on to the next one, physical success breeding psychological success breeding more physical success.
"I know if I keep working hard and going out there and having the confidence, what I've been able to show so far, if I can go out there and repeat that, then I think that's all I can really ask for," Hamels said. "I think the reward is in November when you are heading down a parade."
Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who left Wednesday's win with hamstring soreness, remains day-to-day. The Phillies do not believe the injury to be serious . . . Third baseman Placido Polanco told the Associated Press in the Dominican Republic that the left elbow soreness that has plagued him throughout the season and that likely will require surgery is actually due to a small break . . . The team released lefthander Nate Robertson, who allowed six runs while recording just two outs in the eighth inning against the Marlins . . . Scott Mathieson, who made a longshot recovery from three elbow surgeries to be named the Phillies Minor League Pitcher of the Year, has been placed on the disabled list with a strained latissimus dorsi (back) . . . The Phillies claimed righthander Cesar Carrillo and added him to the 40-man roster. Carrillo, 26, was 5-14 with a 5.60 ERA in 27 starts for Triple A Portland this season . . . Double A Reading announced plans for a $10 million renovation to FirstEnergy Stadium.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.