SOMEBODY ASKED Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels the other day what he thought about all the moves the team has made in recent months, building toward the postseason berth that has so often eluded this franchise, and Hamels said, "For me, being here for [only] the past year, I don't really think I deserve an opinion."
About perfect, right?
He is the rarest of 23-year-olds in that you worry more about his body than his mind. That Hamels has the makeup to be a star in this sport is evident to anyone who has spent 5 minutes talking to him. He has the manner and the demeanor it takes to handle the game and its big moments.
What you worry about is the rest of it - his bad back and his whole physical history. You wonder about the big jump he made last year and the toll it might have taken on his body. A kid his age, you're usually concerned about him growing up and about his maturity catching up with his physical ability. With Hamels, it is the other way around. You worry about his body catching up with his mind.
You say that to him and he talks about the need to be healthy and to grow mentally. You take him back to last season, when he started well after being called up in May, then faded, then surged to the finish line, and what he talks about mostly is the finish line, and how the Phillies again fell short.
"The main thing was to keep myself healthy and to play a full year," Hamels said. "I didn't ever imagine it to turn out the way it did. But the way it ended, I wanted to go more. I wanted to play that last month."
That he is a significant piece for this starting pitching staff now goes without saying. That this team's ability to reach that last month is predicated on Hamels' ability to continue growing as a starter is also a given around here. But the physical concerns nag.
Anyone who thought Hamels answered those questions in 2006 does not read Sports Illustrated. In November, writer Tom Verducci identified Hamels as the major leagues' No. 1 candidate for a potential problem he has noted among young pitchers who see a big jump in innings pitched. Often, Verducci says, young pitchers who see their innings increase by 25 or 30 can be prone to breaking down in the following season.
And Hamels? With 181 1/3 professional innings last season, he exceeded his previous professional high by 80 1/3 innings. The change in workload would be a shock to anyone's system.
Hamels says things like, "I'm getting ready, trying to prepare myself for it as much as I possibly can, and we'll see what happens." He says that one of the effects of meeting Phils veteran pitcher Jamie Moyer has been the ability to learn more about work ethic and workout techniques. Hamels says:
"You just have to keep maintaining yourself, the strength and the focus of going out there every 5 days. At this point last year, I could barely get out of bed with my back. At this point, right now, I feel great. I'm more excited about this year than I ever could be. You don't have to worry about having some little problem hinder me during spring training. I can go out there and focus more and be a part of the team."
Last year, Hamels was a pitcher the team left behind in Florida for a month, as he says, "So I didn't have to deal with this cold. Experiencing it for the last couple of days, I'm happy to go back to Florida . . . It's just something you have to get used to - it's part of the job. When you get out on the field, you don't worry about the temperature - you worry about the game."
But cold weather will be an issue for the first time in his major league career. The long grind will be an issue. Expectations, too, will be in place for the first time. Last year, fans viewed Hamels as this great new toy, fresh and shiny out of the box. This year, people expect him to produce.
It is all different. He says there were moments last year when he needed to calm himself on the mound, slow himself. He says it is another thing he has learned from Moyer, "That you have to take that deep breath every once in a while."
That is all part of it, the sometimes-complicated development of a 23-year-old lefthander. But with this 23-year-old, it somehow seems simpler. With Cole Hamels, just keep your eye on one statistical column in 2007: GS (games started). The closer Hamels gets to 35, the closer the Phillies will get to the pennant. *
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