Hamels comes up empty again

Cole Hamels rests in the dugout. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Cole Hamels rests in the dugout. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 04, 2013

Five months ago, when the baseball year was still young and hopeful for the Phillies and the Washington Nationals, the promise of a Labor Day matchup in Citizens Bank Park between Cole Hamels and Stephen Strasburg held all the wonderful possibilities that pennant-race baseball can offer.

And then the season happened.

As it turns out, autumn will not bring any excitement for either team, only relief that a disappointing 2013 has finally ended. Hamels and Strasburg were indeed on the mound Monday night, but there was no crackle to the showdown, and the fewest in attendance since April 2008. For the Phillies, it was merely another game down, 24 to go, and, even by their standards, one that featured a lineup a very long way from pennant-race quality.

You can't always get what you want, and in baseball, you can't even get what you expect most of the time. For reference, there is no better example than what happened to Hamels this season as he slogged through either the best bad year or the worst good year of his career. Whatever it was, this hasn't been the anticipated follow-up to 2012 when Hamels won 17 games, made the all-star team and finished among the top 10 in Cy Young voting for the second straight season.

"It's been a long year of that," Hamels said Monday night after seven innings of two-hit ball earned him a no-decision in a 3-2 Phillies win. "If it's a case of me giving the team a chance to win, that's all I can ask for."

Hamels, who remained 6-13 for the season, opened the year with two bad starts. Despite pitching to a 3.06 earned run average since then, it has been as if the game and his team never forgave him. While all of the Phillies' starting pitchers suffered from a lack of run support from the scattershot offense, what Hamels has gone through is epochal.

No regular starter in the National League has gotten less help from his offense. Going into Monday night, the Phillies were averaging 2.8 runs per 27 outs during the innings he pitched. Hamels recorded a quality start in 76 percent of his games (22 of 29), but lost seven of those, the most in the major leagues. In 11 of his overall losses, the Phils scored two or fewer runs.

"When you have guys with the character Cole has, guys who are accountable people that expect to be winners and prepare to be winners, when it doesn't happen there is some frustration and you can get sidetracked very easily," pitching coach Rich Dubee said.

After those first two starts, when he allowed a total of 13 earned runs, Hamels settled in and began to pitch well (he gave up a total of 11 earned runs in his next six starts), but things didn't get much better for him individually and got a lot worse for the team in general. He lost nine of his first 10 decisions and became the first Phillies pitcher since 1937 to lose 11 games before the start of July.

"It's been one of those years where a lot of things haven't gone his way, with run support being one of them," interim manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He almost felt, especially the first half of the season, as if he had to be so perfect out there, because every game was 0-0 or 1-0 and a lot of times he didn't have the lead."

In one stretch between April 7 and May 31, Hamels pitched a total of 581/3 innings over nine starts and never held a lead. Read that sentence again. He had a 3.24 ERA over that span and came out of it a 1-5 record and two no-decisions. That the kind of thing that can mess up a man.

"He got into a rut and was trying to be too perfect and trying to throw no-hitters and shutouts from pitch one. That's just not his style," Dubee said. "He pitched a lot of good games and didn't get a lot of credit and that wears on you. You have to be relaxed and be tension-free and you have to be committed to what you're doing. He wasn't tension-free by any means, and he wasn't relaxed and his commitment was more like 'I'm going throw my way through this,' than 'I'm going to pitch my way through this.' That happens."

While it was happening, Hamels was still very good and somehow, in the last two months, he has been excellent. It's just that the Phillies were so awful, particularly after the all-star break, that few noticed because he still wasn't winning many games. In his 12 starts since July 1, including Monday night, Hamels has pitched to a 2.17 ERA and - woo hoo! - recorded a 4-2 record.

"Maybe when you're younger, you only look at wins and losses to justify yourself as a pitcher," Hamels said. "As you mature, you understand that sometimes you look at other things to justfy how good you're doing."

Against the Nationals, in what could have been matchup to remember had things gone differently this year, Hamels had just another start that will be forgotten, even though it was a very good one. Seven innings, two hits, one run, zero in the won-lost column. As the man said, you have to look for other things.

When it is time to add up the season, the Phillies wasted an awful lot on their way to their first losing record in more than a decade, but at the very top of the list, they have wasted the greatest six-win pitching performance in baseball history.

Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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