Phil Sheridan: Hamels' pitch for redemption

Posted: October 10, 2010

CINCINNATI - When he said what he said, this is what Cole Hamels was really talking about.

A million years ago - or was it just last October? - Hamels was mired in a personal funk that was going to end only when the season did. He had mismanaged his off-season preparation and there just wasn't any way to fix things.

The most valuable player of the 2008 World Series had become the most mystifying player of the 2009 postseason. So when Hamels said a part of him just wanted the season to end so he could get that fresh start, it was misconstrued by disappointed fans who thought he wanted to quit.

What he wanted was the chance to start over. What he wanted was this, a 2010 season of redemption followed by another postseason of promise. Hamels will take the mound for Game 3 here Sunday night with a chance to clinch a third consecutive berth in the National League Championship Series.

A year ago, with Hamels pitching, you'd be glad the Phillies had two more chances to close out a series. This year, you have every reason to expect Hamels to shut the Reds down.

"I've learned that you can't try to be a hero in the postseason," Hamels said. "You just have to play your game. If you do that right, then you can become one."

His return to his hero-of-'08 form has been an underappreciated part of this Phillies season. Roy Halladay was the guy who marched in, threw a perfect game, put up 21 wins, and pitched a no-hitter in his playoff debut. Roy Oswalt was the trade-deadline pickup who helped the Phillies blow past the Atlanta Braves in the NL East race.

All Hamels did was go out every fifth day and pitch very, very well. There were no temperamental displays on the mound, no flaky comments for the pundits to pounce on, no sign whatsoever of Cole Hamlet, the melancholy southpaw.

"Experience played a lot for Cole this year," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "The experience he got last year, he had a downer season and he went through a whole lot - those are things you have to go through in this game if you play long enough. To bounce back and have himself in the condition he's in and to be throwing the ball like he is right now, that definitely comes from all the experience he has."

Hamels always has been a study in contradictions. When he is pitching at his best, his fluid motion and masterful control make him a treat for baseball aficionados. When he's stamping around on the mound, unhinged by a home run or an umpire's strike zone, it's hard to believe he's the same guy.

On a team of gritty, baseball-the-right-way gamers, Hamels was the guy who needed the team to provide a chiropractor on the road. And yet he is part of the homegrown core of this once-in-a-lifetime team, along with Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley.

That alone distinguishes Hamels. During this remarkable four-year run, all of the Phillies' best starting pitchers have come from elsewhere - from Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton to Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez to Halladay and Oswalt. Even their top reliever, Brad Lidge, was acquired from outside the organization.

Hamels is just 26, but he will be making his 11th postseason start.

"I have a good idea of what comes with being in the postseason," Hamels said. "The differences with exposure, with the crowds, the home-field advantage and what that means to a team. Just the way guys play."

Look around baseball in general and at this year's playoff teams in particular. Everywhere you look, you see talented young pitchers. It is more than a trend. It's an epidemic.

"I've definitely seen more young pitchers that are dominating than I can remember in a while," Halladay said the other day. "You don't see the timid way [young pitchers] approach the game. They come up and they come after you, and that's something I haven't seen as much in the past."

Hamels is the only homegrown Phillies pitcher who fits that description. Instead of being the unquestioned ace, pitching Game 1 of every series as he did in '08, Hamels is one-third of a daunting three-man rotation.

In a sense, there is less pressure. In another, there is more. The bar is set very high. Last year, with Lee setting the standard, Hamels couldn't match him. This year? Well, that's what Sunday night is about.

Two years ago, when the bright lights of the postseason came on, Hamels was at his intimidating best. Last year, he was at his mystifying worst. October is a pass/fail exam, and Hamels looks ready this time.

This time, he can't wait for it to start.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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