When Hamels reached the finish line last September, he had to think that the next season would be better. He had recovered to go 6-3 with a 2.68 ERA in his final 16 starts. He had proved he was still worthy of ace status.
And then, just in time for the holidays, Hamels found himself caught in another downward spiral. He felt soreness in his biceps right around Thanksgiving and didn't throw at all in December. The start to his new season was delayed by three weeks after early March arm fatigue further slowed his spring-training program.
Hamels delivered a strong six-inning effort in his season debut in Los Angeles, but the Phillies scored only twice off Zack Greinke and the Dodgers bullpen, leaving the lefty to deal with one of those disturbing defeats he endured so many times last season.
Six days later, he had a date with the Mets in the cold and rain at Citizens Bank Park. It went bad shortly after the pitcher made eye contact with the New York hitters. He couldn't throw strikes, couldn't grip the baseball, didn't last five innings, and kept repeating how embarrassed he was afterward.
In between that start and the one he made Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, Hamels battled a flu bug that prevented his scheduled showdown with Washington's Gio Gonzalez on Sunday. The Phillies were fortunate that fill-in Roberto Hernandez picked that day to pitch his best game of the season, and they escaped with a 1-0 win.
Hamels was just as fortunate to escape with a no-decision against the Blue Jays on Tuesday, but he was still the man most responsible for the 6-5, 10-inning loss that pushed the Phillies back under .500 at the completion of their 2-4 homestand.
"He was out there just not real sharp with his pitches, not sharp command," manager Ryne Sandberg said.
Hamels allowed five runs on 10 hits in six innings. The Phils expect and need more from the man they will pay $22.5 million in each of the next five seasons.
Among the 10 hits he allowed were two by opposing pitcher Drew Hutchison, who didn't have any in his three previous professional at-bats. The more crushing blows came from Edwin Encarnacion and Colby Rasmus. Encarnacion hit a home run in the second inning that nearly had enough distance to take an upper-deck seat in Harry the K's restaurant beyond left field.
Rasmus slammed an equally impressive two-run home run to right-center field in the fourth to give the Blue Jays a 4-0 lead. Steve Tolleson's RBI double in the sixth made it 5-0. Hamels, who is scheduled to pitch again Sunday against the Mets in New York, did a better job of throwing strikes in this game, but not enough quality ones.
"They're an aggressive-hitting team," Hamels said. "You don't want to throw pitches down the middle, but at the same time you can't try to be too fine. The situations I was getting in trouble, I was being too fine. I tried to be on the corners, but I was missing and then having to give in and throw strikes right to their strengths. They hit the ball out of the ballpark frequently, and they did so tonight."
For much of the evening, it appeared as if this would be a case of poor pitching combined with a lack of hitting and some inexplicably poor baserunning. The Phillies had gone 21 innings without scoring a run when Hamels threw his final pitch, but they got the lefthander off the hook with a five-run inning that was capped by Cody Asche's grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the sixth.
Still, the evening ended with a loss and with Hamels searching for answers. He admits he's not close to where he wants to be.
"Where I'd want to be is 3-0 and a zero ERA in 27 innings, but that's not the case," he said. "I just have to keep working. I think getting into a five-day schedule will definitely help. Being able to get the routine going and not battling all the outside sources that have transpired for myself so far will allow me to get some confidence."
You could tell he believes it will get better. For the Phillies' sake, he'd better be right and it had better not take as long as last year.