In a spring dominated by disabled bodies, the struggles of Colbert Michael Hamels have gone largely unnoticed. After allowing six runs on nine hits last Thursday- including two homers - Hamels' spring training earned run average stands at 6.75.
"Not good," he said. "I should be a lot smarter or at least a lot more prepared right now."
He is still just 27, a hard thing to grasp for anyone who met him for the first time back in 2003, his first pro season, when, at 19, he accepted the Paul Owens Award as the best pitcher in the Phillies' system. Since then Hamels has been a mercurial Hamlet, breaking his hand in a bar fight as a 21-year-old, emerging the next season as a viable rookie-of-the-year candidate and ace, winning 15 games the next year, overdressing for his first playoff start, wowing us all with his 2008 postseason run, driving everyone crazy the following summer when big-run innings followed early game dominance.
If Phillies fans were ever tried for being fickle, the ebbs in Hamels' popularity would no doubt be introduced as evidence. Many who lauded his focus and grit amid the mess of World Series Game 5 - the wetness impeded his ability to throw his changeup - questioned his mettle when the ball kept leaving the yard the following year. Trade him, sign Cliff Lee, was the resounding sentiment when the 2009 campaign ended with the World Series loss to the Yankees.
"Oh man, I don't even care," Hamels said. "I truly don't. I know it's one of those things that if I do my job they'll be happy. And I don't like to lose so . . . if that makes them happy. 'Cause I'm not going to ever settle for losing."
Do people get that, that his desire to win is as intense as that of Halladay, Lee and Roy Oswalt? "I don't know," he said with a big smile. "You've got to do a poll."
Or you can go back into their histories. Each one had a season like Hamels' '09, and each has had springs like the one he's having. The year before Lee won the Cy Young Award as an Indian with a 22-3 record, he finished the season 5-8. Halladay was 8-8 during the season he turned 27.
As Hamels said last Thursday, "I'm still learning."
Not the grit part. His troubles have come from challenging guys, sometimes with pitches he began to master last summer, when he reversed a tepid start with a dominating second half.
"I feel like my stuff's really good," he said. "I'm just not able to repeat it. When you're throwing three of 10 good pitches, that's not cutting it. You need to throw seven, eight out of 10."
In a simpler time, that wasn't so hard. Hamels leaned on two pitches until 2009, a fastball with a late tail and a changeup that baffled batters. After that fastball lost some oomph and flattened in 2009, he started working on a cutter and on improving his curve, and on changing speed, ala Halladay.
Learning, though, is one thing. Trust is another, something that really didn't kick in until last season was well under way.
"When you have two, it's like, well, I know I can throw these two pitches really well," he said. "When you add in the other pitches, it's just more to think about. It's helped my game out but at the same time it's harder to get locked in."
Hamels struck out seven batters last Thursday. And there were plenty of awkward swings over nearly seven innings of work.
"That's what's frustrating about right now," he said. "I know I can do it. I've done it, I've shown everybody I can do it.
"And now spring training is kind of over so I need to start clicking it."
He will have one more outing, likely Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park against the Pirates. It will be cold, much colder than the balmy weather of the last 6 weeks. And the crowd, having endured 6 weeks of anxiety over the health of the lineup and, now, the closer, may lack some of the patience you might expect at this time of the year.
"Physically I feel strong," he said. "But I still have a few things to work out. And it better be sooner than later just for the fact that I want to compete at the highest level and be a guy who plays well
"It's one of those gut checks. Things are getting to where they mean something, so I've got to get it ready to go."
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