'Huge' progression for Hamels

Posted: February 28, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Cole Hamels would like to take this opportunity to clear something up.

He is not injured. He never had an injury in Clearwater this month.

But when the Phillies opened the Grapefruit League season yesterday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays, Hamels wasn't scheduled to pitch. He's not on the docket for the rest of the week, either.

Hamels is, however, continuing to take the steps necessary to pitch in games in 2014. Yesterday, he took a step as important as any other while morning rush-hour traffic was still backed up on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and the dew was still present on the sun-bleached grass at the Carpenter Complex.

Hamels threw off a mound for the first time this spring. He called it a "huge" progression in his ability to catch up with the rest of the pitchers in camp.

"It was good, better than expected, which is huge," Hamels said. "It didn't feel as foreign getting off the mound [for the first time in] a long time. Everything felt good. Physically I've been feeling great, so it carried over."

When Hamels spoke 2 weeks earlier inside the lunch room at Bright House Field, he sent a shock of panic all the way back up to the frozen tundra of Philadelphia. And with good reason.

Hamels said that he wouldn't be ready for Opening Day. He said there was a "kink in his system" during his offseason throwing program.

But in the 2 weeks since, Hamels and the Phillies' coaching staff have taken every opportunity to clarify just where the lefthander is physically. Hamels, according to pitching coach Bob McClure, is 100 percent healthy.

He's just behind the rest of the pitchers in camp, as their own first bullpen sessions took place 2 weeks ago.

"But other than that," McClure said, "he would look to me, if I just saw him off the street and today was the first time I saw him, he would look perfectly normal. Like normal. It's just that he started later."

So can Hamels play catchup?

Two weeks ago, Hamels said he generally feels ready to pitch in a major league game after four exhibition starts each spring training. Hamels started six exhibition games last spring.

If Hamels stays on his current pace - 2 weeks behind the rest of the pitchers - and makes his first Grapefruit League start on March 12, there is a chance he could join the rotation as early as the first series of the regular season against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, as long as he only required four spring starts. But, that's highly doubtful; it's more likely the Phils will ease him back at some point in the first half of April.

"If you do that with a guy, he's pressing to get ready for one, and that's the last thing we want to do," McClure said of rushing Hamels back to the rotation. "Two, if he's only up to 60 pitches or something like that, now you're going to tax your bullpen. I know he's anxious because he feels so good. But I think we kind of need to take a cautious road here."

Hamels' next step will come in the form of another bullpen session Saturday. Then he'll likely face hitters in live batting-practice sessions before working his way into the Grapefruit League rotation.

"It's just a matter of getting those reps, the game time," Hamels said. "I'm not worried at all with being ready for the season with having enough reps or having enough experience."

Hamels, who turned 30 this offseason, has pitched professionally long enough to gauge where he is and how he feels at any given time. He's also attempted to start a season while his arm wasn't 100 percent prepared and it didn't go very well.

Five years ago, Hamels was pushed back from a possible Opening Day assignment but still made his first start in the fourth game of the season in Denver against the Rockies. Hamels gave up seven runs in that game.

In his first two starts of the 2009 season, Hamels allowed 12 runs on 19 hits, including four home runs, in 9 2/3 innings. The Phillies lost both games.

Hamels was a victim of his own lack of preparation that year; he slacked off in the offseason after basking in the glow of his World Series MVP status.

Hamels has matured by leaps and bounds in the half-decade since, putting in the work and getting the results, too. Hamels is 51-40 with a 3.13 ERA in 129 games in the four seasons since his somewhat forgettable 2009.

Among major league pitchers who have made at least 100 starts, only seven have a better ERA than Hamels in that 4-year span. Only six have pitched more innings.

Hamels, who entered the big leagues as a confident kid who wanted to rack up All-Star appearances and Cy Young Awards, can remain on that path if he's healthy. He's trusting the progression of his left arm this spring.

"When I first talked to you guys here [2 weeks ago] obviously an injury is the biggest concern or the biggest worry," Hamels said. "And I didn't have an injury. It's just a matter of building up. There's nothing to really worry about in any injury-related [matter]. So it's just a matter of building up the muscles, getting the endurance with your legs on the mound and obviously in that competitive atmosphere. I've been there, done it before, and I feel really confident that I can get everything done and that I can get in the best shape that I can for the season."


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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