THREE MONTHS ago, before the official announcement, Roy Halladay endorsed Cole Hamels as the new leader of the Phillies' rotation.
Halladay had started 10 straight times on Opening Day, dating back to his days in Toronto, but in the early part of spring training the aging veteran acknowledged it was Hamels' time.
"It should have been his spot a long time ago," Halladay said in February about the then-undecided assignment. "I think it's something he's going to embrace . . . I talked to him about it when we're going out and doing drills, stuff like that, it's time for him now to kind of step up and take charge in those situations and establish himself as the head of the staff."
Halladay underwent right shoulder surgery yesterday. His return in 2013 is uncertain.
Hamels, meanwhile, has not exactly taken the reins of the rotation as many had expected. Hamels gave up five runs in five innings as the Indians beat up the Phillies yesterday, 10-4.
The Phillies are 1-8 in Hamels' nine starts this season.
"I hate losing," Hamels said. "So ultimately when you're falling behind, you're putting yourself in a losing situation. It's not the type of game I prepare for. It's the type of thing where I want to make a change real fast because that's not who I am and that's not what I want people to expect. I'll try to push this off as quickly as possible and get back out there to what I'm capable of doing."
Although individual leadership in a five-man rotation is probably as overrated as the significance of an Opening Day starter, it's never a bad thing to have reliability and regular excellence from any pitcher, let alone one you're paying $144 million over the next six seasons.
Hamels hasn't been unreliable in the last month. He entered yesterday afternoon with a 2.41 ERA in his last six starts. But he hasn't been excellent, either. And, sans Halladay, the Phillies could use a better version of Cole Hamels than the one they've watched over the first 6 weeks.
Hamels struggled with command early against Cleveland and was hit hard when he did locate. The result was an early exit for the ace and an ugly loss for his team.
The most simplistic, one-sentence summary of his latest start: Hamels couldn't throw strikes.
Hamels went to three-ball counts to five of the first nine and seven of the first 12 batters he faced. After nine starts, Hamels has gone to a three-ball count to 56 of the 241 batters he has faced (or in 23 percent of plate appearances).
In 2012, Hamels went to a three-ball count in 140 of the 867 plate appearances against him (16 percent); he also had 140 three-ball counts in 850 plate appearances in 2011 (16.5 percent).
"He was having a hard time getting the ball to go where he wanted it to go," manager Charlie Manuel said of Hamels, who threw 64 of his 106 pitches for strikes. "That's what I saw . . . He was having trouble locating his pitches."
As Hamels said accurately, he was putting himself into a losing situation.
"I feel healthy, I feel strong," Hamels said. "I'm able to throw all four pitches for strikes at times, but I'm not able to do it nine out of 10 times. Especially when you're not able to do it right off the bat to get ahead of the hitter, you're not putting them in an uncomfortable at-bat and then you have to nibble away and that's not what you want to do."
The three-ball counts added up.
Hamels' pitch count was at 51 after two innings and at 77 through three. He was only down 2-1 at the end of the third inning, but that didn't last.
Cleveland's eight-hole hitter, Mike Aviles, hit the first pitch he saw in the fourth inning for a solo home run. In the fifth, Jason Kipnis led off with a double (on a 2-0 count) and Nick Swisher followed two batters later (also on a 2-0 count) with a no-doubt-about-it, two-run homer.
When the Phils pinch-hit for Hamels in the bottom of the fifth, they were trailing 5-1.
Only two National League pitchers - Milwaukee's Marco Estrada and San Francisco's Matt Cain - have allowed more home runs than Hamels (nine) this season. No pitcher in the NL has more walks than Hamels.
After walking two yesterday, Hamels, who also hit a batter, is tied for the league high with 24 walks in 56 2/3 innings. Hamels walked just 52 batters in 215 1/3 innings in 2012.
"The only way I look at it is we lost today," Hamels said when asked if the mounting losses are wearing on him. "The past is in the past. Today it was my job to go out and execute pitches and I wasn't able to do that early on. Any time you go 3-2 to the whole lineup over and over, you're not putting yourself in a good spot."
Hamels is 1-6 with a 4.61 ERA after nine starts.
With Halladay already sidelined indefinitely, the Phillies need Hamels to find the strike zone if they have any hope of being relevant as spring turns into summer. Hamels insists his sudden inability to command the ball is not health-related, but instead, an adjustment he can make by correcting his mechanics.
"In between every start just trying to get things so they're rock solid," Hamels said. "Obviously it hasn't shown because of the walks that I've made and the 3-2 counts, the 3-1 counts and the 3-0 counts. It's not showing right now, so I constantly have to keep working at it until I obviously come around . . . It's just a small little tweak here and there. All of us have gone through it at one point. You don't want to, but it's kind of the reality sometimes. I feel like once it clicks, everything will sink in."
When the Phils put forth the blueprint to the 2013 season, which included their $144 million pitcher taking the ball on Day 1, they couldn't have envisioned a scenario where Hamels has pitched with a lead in just four of his first 56 innings.
In fact, Hamels hasn't pitched with a lead since April 7, a span of six straight starts. The trio of Chase Utley, Michael Young and Ryan Howard were a combined 0-for-11 yesterday.
"It's not all on Cole," Howard said. "I mean, he's gone out and thrown some great games. Today was one of those games that it just wasn't in his favor today. But we've had times where the offense, we haven't been able to pick him up. You can't put it all on him."