- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 31, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | He was the prince of Philadelphia, more responsible for securing this town’s first major professional sports championship in 25 years than anyone else on the Phillies’ 2008 playoff roster.

Yet there may not be a bigger unknown entity on the Phillies’ roster than Cole Hamels, whose club desperately needs the left-hander to recapture his old form before the Phillies lose their grip on this year’s World Series.

From MVP of the National League Championship Series and World Series to shaky No. 3 starter in only 12 months, Hamels has the weight of Philadelphia on his shoulders entering Game 3 of a series with the New York Yankees that could hinge on the outcome of Saturday night’s affair at Citizens Bank Park.

“Every time I give him the ball, I think he’s capable of going out and throwing a shutout. I believe that,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “Every time he goes out and pitches, it’s an adventure. But I know he has the talent to shut them down, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

There was no adventure to Hamels’ 2008 postseason, only a thrill ride that resulted in nothing but victories for the Phillies. Five times he took the ball in October, and five times the Phillies won. Just like that, this laid-back kid from San Diego was the toast of a sports-crazed East Coast city that will be talking about his pitching heroics decades from now.

Those same fans will pack the ballpark Saturday to see Hamels face veteran lefty Andy Pettitte and will hold their breath each time he uncorks a pitch, hoping for a return to 2008 form. But they’re scared to death he’ll duplicate his efforts from a 2009 regular season in which he went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA. The results have not better in the postseason; he has allowed 11 runs and 20 hits in 14 2/3 innings.

How did a dominant hurler turn pedestrian in such little time? Neither Hamels nor the Phillies has a good answer, aside from blaming his struggles on a nebulous inability to locate his pitches as he did a year ago.

“I wasn’t able to locate as well earlier in the season, and then it gets frustrating,” he said. “Then it’s the mental burden, which can kind of wear you down week after week of not being able to go out there and do what you’re expecting yourself to do - and then what everybody else expects you to do, too. So it’s been a growing process.”

On one point, everyone agrees: Hamels’ arm is fine. He was bothered by elbow soreness in spring training and was brought along slowly in April, but he hasn’t missed a start since.

“I actually feel great right now,” he said.

More likely, Hamels is learning what plenty of good, young pitchers are forced to figure out at some point. Everybody knows how good he is now, so everybody knows how to try to go after him.

The Phillies liken Hamels’ situation to the one faced by Justin Verlander last year. A dominant 18-game winner in 2007, the Detroit right-hander regressed the following year to lose 17 games before righting his ship this season to win 19.

It’s the timeless art of adjustment, the back-and-forth dance between hitters and pitchers who see each other so often they’re forced into trying to beat the other with mental acuity more than physical strength.

Hamels’ best pitch is his change-up. It’s his “out” pitch, but hitters know that, so they often sit on it when they’re behind in the count.

“It’s not necessarily the advantage for me now, because they do know what I’m going to throw most of the time when I have the strikeout count,” he said. “That’s where you definitely have to mix it up.”

Hamels hasn’t been able to fool anyone this month. In three postseason starts, he served up six home runs - one-fourth of his regular-season total.

Now he faces a Yankees lineup that led the majors with 244 homers, at the bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park, with momentum in the balance. Each team has won one game, but New York figures to be heavily favored in Game 4 with ace CC Sabathia expected to start against unheralded Joe Blanton.

A year ago, there wasn’t a baseball fan in southeastern Pennsylvania who wouldn’t have handed the ball to Hamels for a big game like this. These days? Well, look for a lot of hand-wringing and nail-biting in the stands Saturday night.

“Right now, he’s well-rested, and he’s very capable of going out there and throwing a good game,” Manuel said. “Like I said, I expect him to pitch good tomorrow.”



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