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At last, Hamels makes his debut

At last, Hamels makes his debut
Several years ago, the vastly underrated drive-through burger chain Checkers adopted the slogan "You Gotta Eat." The words are so basic, but so true. You have to eat to survive (and the more chili on top the better).Charlie Manuel sounded like the guy who dreamed up the "You Gotta Eat" campaign as he talked about pitcher Cole Hamels the other day."We've got to have Hamels," the Phillies manager said with a that's-all-there-is-to-it shrug. "We've got to have Hamels, son."So basic.

So true.The Phillies need Hamels if they are going to survive the rigors of the National League East again this season and maybe make it back to the World Series.The 25-year-old lefthander, dubbed "Darth Vader in Spikes" by Atlanta Braves broadcasters, proved his indispensability at many points last season and especially in October. He went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five postseason starts and was named MVP of the National League Championship Series and World Series.A month ago, Hamels appeared destined for a season in which he would compete for the NL Cy Young Award he dreams of winning. That could certainly still happen, but the picture has become hazy. Hamels had trouble shaking what was termed normal spring-training soreness and inflammation in his left elbow and required a cortisone injection on March 17.The setback slowed Hamels' progress in spring training and cost him what would have been his first opening-day start. On Wednesday, pitching coach Rich Dubee said that Hamels was still "in the middle of spring-training mode."Ready for real competition or not, Hamels will make his regular-season debut today against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.Health-wise, both Hamels and the team say they have no concerns about the pitcher's readiness.As for the sharpness and quality of his three-pitch (fastball, change-up, curveball) mix - well, the Rockies hitters will offer commentary on that. Hamels is expected to be on a pitch count of about 95.An MRI exam revealed no structural damage in Hamels' elbow, and the cortisone injection took care of the soreness and swelling. Hamels, however, has not shown the usual zip with his fastball. In October, he sent Jeff Kent off into retirement with a 94-m.p.h. dart in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. On Saturday, in Hamels' final spring tune-up against Tampa Bay, his fastball topped out at 86 m.p.h. He will need to get his fastball into the low 90s if he's going to create enough differential to fool hitters with his vaunted change-up.Hamels thinks the electricity of a big-league game will give him the "extra juice" he needs to put the bite back in his pitches. Dubee agreed."Physically, he's fine," Dubee said. "The command of his pitches is not there yet, and he needs more reps. I think he'll have a little more alertness when there's a third deck on the stadium and the big lights are on. He proved that last year."Hamels went 14-10 with a 3.09 ERA in 33 starts last season. He held opposing hitters to a .272 on-base percentage, the best in the majors. He never has pitched at Coors Field, which was the ultimate hitters' paradise until several years ago when the Rockies calmed down the offense by storing baseballs in a humidor to keep them from drying out."You just have to go out there and pitch your game, regardless of the park," said Hamels, who signed a three-year, $20.5 million contract extension over the winter. "I'm looking forward to it."Everyone in the Phillies organization will exhale if Hamels comes out of today's start feeling fit. And if he can deliver a quality start - six or more innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs - the day will be all that much better. The Phils haven't had a quality start in their first three games.Hamels had 23 quality starts last season, tying him for fourth in the NL."For me, a lot of what Cole did last year was no surprise because of his natural ability, his mental toughness and his inner confidence," said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "It's not arrogance, just a deep belief in himself. Every time he goes out there, he believes he can win the game, maybe even throw a no-hitter. That inner confidence is rare."He has lofty goals: Win a Cy Young, be a World Series MVP again. He believes those are attainable, and I don't doubt him. Nothing he does would surprise me."Of course, it all starts with health, which has always been an issue for Hamels. Last season was the first in five in which he avoided a trip to the disabled list.Manuel looks forward to the day when questions about Hamels' health cease and he can sit back and marvel at the pitcher's work and Darth Vader approach."Obviously, he's got great stuff, but I love the way he competes," Manuel said. "He loves to pitch. He has high expectations in himself. He's determined. He has a lot of passion and loves the game. I think he'll be fine."He'd better be, because the Phillies have got to have Hamels to survive.Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: April 10, 2009

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