One of the longest tenured and most polarizing athletes in Philadelphia sports makes his season debut tonight. If a five-year pattern holds up, it will likely be a complete disaster, and I cannot wait.
I really mean that. I love baseball, but if tonight’s Phillies-Dodgers game featured any other starting pitcher for the away team, it would be well below the NHL playoffs and the NFL schedule release show on my priority list. The return of Cole Hamels has bumped it up.
Watching the Phillie pitcher get lit up during his opening start is a spring ritual for Phillies fans. Unfortunately the annual tradition was delayed just a few weeks this year due to some shoulder tendinitis.
Now, before you close this tab without reading another paragraph, I’m not trying to troll you nor am I a Cole Hamels hater. He just historically has real rough outings in his opening start dating back to 2009. Here’s the pitching lines to prove my point and to make your eyes bleed a little:
Rockies 09: 3.2 IP, 11 H, 7 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 17.18 ERA, — L, 10-3
Nationals ’10: 5 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 3.60 ERA — W, 8-4
Mets ’11: 2.2 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 20.25 ERA — L, 7-1
Marlins ’12: 5.1 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 9 K, 5.06 ERA — L, 6-2
Braves ’13: 5 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 9.00 ERA — L, 7-5
I’m excited for tonight because Cole Hamels can’t go on to have his typical very good season without some sort of first start. I’m excited for tonight because I remember fondly when this trend wasn’t yet a thing nearly eight years ago.
On May 12, 2006, a 22-year old lefty from San Diego, California with Hollywood looks and a nasty changeup went into Great American Ballpark and shut down a Cincinnati Reds team that entered the contest 11 games over .500. Five shutout innings, only one hit, seven strikeouts in his Major League debut.
I knew watching on that Friday night that he was something special and I would likely still be talking about him 95 months later.
Here’s a list of active MLB starting pitchers who are still with the same team dating back to that memorable night:
Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain
Jered Weaver missed the cut by two weeks, Jon Lester by a month. Adam Wainwright was with the Cardinals but as a reliever.
That’s a pretty impressive trio right there to join. The three of them combine for 13 All-Star games, two Cy Young awards, two perfect games, two no-hitters, and two World Series rings.
Pitchers just don’t last nine seasons in the majors on the same club without doing something incredibly right, and with his current contract, Hamels has a chance to be in the same place for at least 14 years.
On that memorable May night, you knew that if the Phillies ever caught the Mets and Braves in the NL East, Hamels would be a part of it. Seventeen months later, that happened, and it was a Hamels gem that gave the Phillies their first lead all season in the division after 160 games.
A year later, he put the city on a parade float. The fact that someone seven months younger than the city’s championship drought was the driving force behind a World Series title is almost unfathomable.
The landscape began to change as 2008 turned to 2009. Hamels initially didn’t handle success well and showed up to spring training behind schedule and unprepared for the title defense season. While he didn’t miss a start, it was the worst year of his career.
If we break things down with sabermetrics, it honestly wasn’t that bad. His .317 BABIP was 22 points higher than any other professional season. Still, a hanging curveball to Andy Pettite essentially handed the Yankees the 2009 World Series.
The Phillies were two-wins away from back-to–back titles, and if Cole Hamels was Cole Hamels, they get it. A lot of fans — myself included — held this against him.
In 2007 and 2008, Hamels days were something to look forward to because he was so much better than Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick, Adam Eaton, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ, and anyone else who made a start. If you had tickets to a game and anyone else was scheduled to pitch, you were a little upset.
I was lucky enough to see him work in person a few times during those two years including June 2, 2007 when he made Barry Bonds flail at a ninth-inning changeup on the way to a complete game. If I ever have kids and they like baseball, I will tell them about that early summer night when 45,000 fans of a team two games below. 500 stood and went wild as a budding ace struck out one of the game’s greatest hitters ever.
Hamels represented hope that gone were the days of Andy Ashby, Robert Person, Omar Daal, Jon Lieber, or some other in-over-their-head pitcher trying to play ace and anchor a rotation. Things were about to be very different.
After delivering on that hope though, things got way, way different. Cliff Lee arrived, then Roy Halladay, then both of them. Hamels stabilized into a very good, consistent pitcher but sort of faded into the background, occasionally hearing boos at Citizens Bank Park after a rough start.
I knew some people who were big 2008 apologists. They believed anyone on that World Series winning team was immune to criticism. I hated that thought process. It was so lazy and complacent, but I also knew forever holding that 2009 debacle against someone who brought you a championship wasn’t exactly fair.
I don’t even love Roy Halladay as much as most Phillies fans love Roy Halladay, but I loved Roy Halladay because he’s Roy Halladay. I love Cliff Lee because he told the Yankees to take 150 million and shove it, instead choosing to come back to Philadelphia.
While the same amount of love might not exist, there’s something Hamels has on them. He’s ours. Lee and Halladay were hired guns from Cleveland and Toronto brought in to keep a good thing going. Hamels was here before they arrived and will be here long after they’re both gone.
There was a brief time though where that wasn’t a slam dunk. Slated to become a free agent at the end of 2012, the Phillies had to either work out a long-term deal or trade him for prospects before the deadline. They couldn’t risk losing him that winter and getting nothing back. The ball was more or less in his court, but the desire to be courted by multiple MLB teams as the prize of a free agent class is tempting. No one was certain how it would play out.
On July 21, 2012, it suddenly dawned on me that I might be watching his final start as a Phillie. I choose the word “suddenly” because my Phillies watching had slacked a bit that summer.
If you’ve ever met me, you know that there’s a 5-6 year stretch where if you name a date, I can tell you what happened in that particular game right away, but they were having a pretty pedestrian season and Penn State football was two days away from being hit with unprecedented sanctions.
It was going to be a long week, and the Phillies had been far from the top of my priority list, but I made sure to watch every pitch of that Saturday afternoon start.
Don’t go Cole, I said to my TV as he walked off the mound to a standing ovation after 7.2 innings. Normally 10 hits and five runs allowed doesn’t earn you that, but despite the occasional rocky relationship, fans knew it could be their final chance to a World Series hero in red pinstripes at home.
Less than a week later, he and the Phillies agreed on the richest contract in team history. Phew. Whether that deal was a good baseball move still needs to play out over time, but when it was inked, I celebrated because that’s what you do when your homegrown ace decides this is the place he wants to be.
He was here before things started to get good and saw things get bad again after five straight NL East championships. While this all happened, off the field he grew from a laid-back kid to a husband with children including an adopted Ethiopian baby. His wife runs a successful charity foundation with a global impact.
If the Phillies can snap out of this downward spiral and right the ship over the next few seasons, he’ll be a huge reason why, just like back in 2007.
This city has taken too many good athletes for granted over the years only to become aware of it long after they had either left town or left the game entirely. While it’s not always perfect, I don’t want to realize in 2024 that I did that with this one.
That’s why I’m excited as all hell for Cole Hamels to be back on the mound tonight, and you should be too.