Paul Hagen: As Hamels goes, so go the Phillies

Cole Hamels delivers a pitch during the Phillies 22-1 rout of the Reds on Monday. Hamels pitched seven innings and even went 2-for-4 at the plate, with two runs scored and two RBIs. (Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer)

EVERYBODY KNOWS that Phillies starting pitchers have a 5.04 earned run average, second worst in the National League.

See, that's how rumors get started.

From there, it's an easy leap to the conclusion that, unless they can somehow land an established arm before the trading deadline on the last day of this month, their hopes of recapturing any of last year's October magic will be hopelessly out of reach.

Which in turn leads directly to the breathless response that was generated when word began to circulate that the Phillies will take a gander at free agent Pedro Martinez when he throws in the bullpen down in the Dominican Republic today.

That's how quickly gossip and innuendo can spin out of control.

Now, could the Phillies use another proven starter, a guy who can go out there every fifth day and pitch deep into games and give them a chance to win? Well, duh.

Still, your honor, and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there's compelling evidence to suggest that an even more pressing need is for one Colbert Michael Hamels, 25, of Center City, to regain the consistency that he demonstrated last season on the way to being voted Most Valuable Player of both the National League Championship Series and World Series.

He had failed to complete even five innings in either of his previous two starts. Before the Phillies buried the Cincinnati Reds with an avalanche of offense, 22-1, last night at Citizens Bank Park, the question of how Hamels would fare was a paramount issue.

Statistically, he was good. Really good. Hell, excellent: seven innings, three hits, no walks, one run.

From the Baseball-Is-A-Funny-Game file: In those previous two starts, the Phillies didn't even have a hit while Hamels was on the mound. Last night, they had six hits, including a hat trick of homers, plus three walks and a hit batter, and knocked Reds starter Johnny Cueto out of the game before the bottom of the first ended.

Honestly, though, it's difficult to proclaim that he's back. Not when you consider that he had a double-digit lead before he stepped on the mound in the top of the second. That changes everything.

Even Hamels acknowledged that.

"It's difficult for the other team, getting 10 runs right away," he said. "You could tell some of the energy definitely left them. They were not really working counts. They were just trying to get out of there as quickly as possible."

It also allowed the slender lefthander some margin as he tried to take some of the things he'd been working on in the game. Hamels said he was "leaking" too much during his delivery, opening up his front side, which gave the hitters a slightly better view of the ball.

To correct that, while throwing on the side, he had coach Mick Billmeyer move back several feet from the catcher's normal position behind the plate. The idea was that it would help him lengthen his stride slightly and throw "through" the hitting zone, Hamels explained.

"It was a perfect game to work on things," he said. "You know if you mess up you can scratch it, because you have so many runs."

That stat about the rotation's ERA can be misleading as well, even though it's often cited as the reason why the Phillies should be willing to raid the farm system and mortgage the future for an opportunity to become the first National League team to repeat as world champions since the 1975-76 Big Red Machine.

Except that a more detailed examination suggests that the situation might not be as dire as it first appears.

As bad as the number looks, through the first month of the season it was much, much worse. At the end of play on May 2, the starters' ERA was 6.71.

Since then, it's 4.46. Still not great, but an improvement.

Look even closer and the picture becomes even more encouraging.

In Joe Blanton's last eight starts, his ERA is 2.61.

Since J.A. Happ moved from the bullpen to the rotation, also eight starts ago: 3.16.

And in his last eight starts, 46-year-old Jamie Moyer has recovered from a dreadful start to post a 4.10 ERA.

Those are the kind of numbers that, along with competent bullpen work, should be good enough to give the Phillies a fightin' chance to win most games.

The fifth spot, which has at variously times this season belonged to Chan Ho Park and Antonio Bastardo and is currently held by Rodrigo Lopez, remains a question mark.

That's one reason why the Phils wouldn't sneer at a chance to upgrade (although manager Charlie Manuel seemed to go out of his way to telegraph his lack of interest in Martinez before the game). Another is that you-can-never-have-too-much-pitching became a cliché because it is so true.

And from every indication, no team in baseball has been more aggressive about following up every lead and scouting every possible deal, no matter how remote the chances might be.

At the same time, no matter what they're able to do, unless Hamels is a reasonable facsimile of the ace he became in 2008, it probably won't matter anyway. *

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