It all starts with the fastball, Cole Hamels said, and he had it working Sunday against the Marlins. In the later innings, Hamels effectively reduced his repertoire to just his trusty combo of fastball-changeup. He threw just two secondary pitches from the sixth inning on.
"You really have to execute the fastball," Hamels said. "When you get into those innings, the guys have seen you, but it’s all about being aggressive. If I can execute the first pitch and get ahead of them, I can put the ball in my court. That’s where I can take advantage and dictate what they’re going to do against me."
Last start against Washington, in which Hamels allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings, he threw 64.4 percent of his fastballs for strikes. On Sunday against Florida, he threw 73.4 percent of his fastballs for strikes.
That's your difference right there. Hamels was in around the strike zone more than he has been at any point in 2010.
He threw his cutter fewer times (14 against Washington, 10 against Florida) but still threw it for strikes. Eight of his 10 cutters were strikes (two swinging strikes).
And he threw his curveball seven times Sunday, three for strikes -- the exact same amounts as his previous start vs. Washington.
The curve breakdown:
2 outs, none on, 0-2 count to Hanley Ramirez -- called strike three
2 outs, none on, 0-0 count to Gaby Sanchez -- ball
2 outs, runner on second, 0-0 count to Hanley Ramirez -- ball
0 outs, none on, 0-0 count to Jorge Cantu -- ball
1 out, none on, 0-1 count to Dan Uggla -- ball
1 out, none on, 1-2 count to Dan Uggla -- single to left
1 out, none on, 0-1 count to Gaby Sanchez -- fouled off
Earlier in the week, pitching coach Rich Dubee said Hamels is still developing confidence in his curveball. He has thrown it for much longer than his cutter, but the cutter is a pitch that can be commanded easier. Dubee said he's seen a decent curve from Hamels during his side bullpen sessions.
He is still being safe with when he throws the curve -- six of the seven curves were thrown with the bases empty. He didn't throw one when behind in the count.
"It’s a pitch you keep working with," Hamels said Sunday. "You don’t stray from it. I know if I’m able to keep getting the right grip, releasing it the way that I’d like and just letting the curve take over. It’s a confidence pitch. The more that you throw it, the better you’re going to have a feel. It’s something I work on between my starts. Building and building up, it’s something I think will just keep getting better."
There were some signs of confidence: Hamels threw a first-pitch curve to Hanley Ramirez, the best hitter in Florida's lineup, with a runner on second and two outs. He had gotten Ramirez to strike out on the curve his last time up so tried it again. It missed for a ball.
The lone run Hamels allowed one of his own pitches (the second run was charged to Hamels but Ryan Madson inherited it) was a solo home run by Dan Uggla on a cutter.
"It kind of hung up there a little bit," Hamels said. "Those happen. Sometimes they hit them. Sometimes they miss."
Over all, the hitters missed more Sunday than before. That has to be an encouraging sign, especially given the rocky state of the starting rotation.
We should hear more on lefthander J.A. Happ (left forearm soreness) later Monday. The Phillies have a 4 p.m. flight to Atlanta and probably will make a decision whether Happ can start one of the three games against the Braves before then. Even if Happ is healthy, he probably doesn't start Wednesday as scheduled. That's Roy Halladay's fifth day and the Phillies have said publicly they want their ace pitching on regular rest as often as possible.
The hunch? With an off day, they skip Happ's turn. Can't hurt to be too cautious in April.
When the Phillies head to Arizona for a weekend series, the first pitcher they will face is none other than Kris Benson. In 2008, the Phillies brought Benson in on a minor-league deal with hopes of him providing rotation insurance.
He made 11 starts at triple-A Lehigh Valley with a 5.52 ERA before being released Aug. 30. I remember going out to cover one of Benson's starts at triple A while Brett Myers was mired in his midseason skid. Benson hovered around 88-89 m.p.h. then and said after the game he didn't think he could throw 100 pitches in a game anymore.
In his first start for Arizona against San Diego on Saturday night, Benson allowed two runs in six innings and threw 100 pitches.
Strange game, this baseball.