The rampaging Phillies added another weapon in prized lefthander Cole Hamels,who sparkled in his major league debut
Cole Hamels was 14years old when he realized the power of the changeup. "It was the summer of1998, and I was watching a ton of Padres games," says Hamels, who was aboutto begin his freshman year at Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego. "Everynight there was Hells Bells and Trevor Hoffman entering the game in the ninthinning, dominating with that changeup of his. The Padres got to the WorldSeries that year because of that pitch. I'd think to myself, I need thatpitch."
Last Friday night,in a steady drizzle in Cincinnati, major league hitters got their first looksat Hamels's change--a pitch the now 22-year-old Phillies phenom perfected whiledeveloping into one of the top prospects in baseball. In his highly anticipatedbig league debut the wiry 6'3", 175-pound lefthander, who also can locate a93-mph fastball and a tumbling curve with precision, allowed one hit and struckout seven, including five on low-80s changeups, in five shutout innings. Hamelsleft with a 2--0 lead but did not get the decision in Philadelphia's 8--4win.
As with any goodchangeup, Hamels throws his with the same arm speed and motion as his fastball."The pitch is nasty," Reds leftfielder Austin Kearns says of theoff-speed offering. "He disguises it really well. You think it's a fastballcoming at you, and you guess wrong."
The Phillies'first-round pick in 2002, Hamels quickly lived up to his billing. Since makinghis pro debut in '03, he had gone 14--4 in the minors, with a 1.43 ERA and 273strikeouts in 1951/3 innings. All that stopped him the last two years wereinjuries to his left elbow, left hand and lower back. After just three startsfor Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this spring--he allowed a total of 10 hits,one run and one walk while striking out 36--Hamels was summoned toPhiladelphia.
With Hamels'sarrival--a shot in the arm for a rotation that has been the team'sweakness--and the club's recent hot streak, the Phillies, who started 9--14,are suddenly flush with optimism. In the two games following Hamels's debut,righthanders Jon Lieber and Brett Myers allowed a combined one run on six hitsin 152/3 innings. A 2--1 win over Cincinnati on Sunday was Philadelphia's 13thvictory in 14 games, moving the team within one game of the first-place Mets inthe NL East. "Everything's clicking for us right now," catcher MikeLieberthal says, "and adding [Hamels] is like making a trade to add a toppitcher to our team. That's a great boost for us."
As affable andeasygoing off the field as a typical SoCal native, Hamels occasionally revealsa mean streak on the mound. During a game in his senior year of high school, hehad a no-hitter going when an opposing player tried, unsuccessfully, to laydown a bunt. On the next pitch Hamels drilled the batter with a fastball.Indeed, Hamels competes with supreme confidence; he has so much faith in hisstuff that he rarely studies scouting reports on hitters or watches video.
The biggestquestion facing Hamels is, Can he stay healthy? "Talent doesn't matter whenyou injure yourself because you're not working hard enough," he says."Over the last year especially, I've been working hard [getting into shape]to get to the majors as soon as possible."
At Great AmericanBall Park on Friday to watch Hamels attain his goal were 12 relatives andfriends, including parents Gary and Amanda and girlfriend Heidi Strobel, aformer Survivor contestant and Playboy cover girl. (The two met during anexhibition game two years ago in Clearwater, Fla.)
For Hamels themost surreal moment of his debut came in the first inning, when Redscenterfielder Ken Griffey Jr. stepped to the plate. "I felt like I wasplaying a video game," he says, explaining that he had played Griffey'sNintendo game religiously as a kid. Hamels needed only three pitches to strikeout his boyhood idol, the final one an 82-mph changeup that Griffey could onlystare at as it floated over the heart of the plate.
The Last Cuts By Mr. Angel?
When he walked outof Angel Stadium last October, after his club had been eliminated by the WhiteSox in the AL Championship Series, Tim Salmon thought it might be his last tripthrough those gates. "I got emotional," says the 37-year-old DH, whosat out the 2005 season recovering from knee and shoulder operations. "Ilooked around--at the ushers, the security guards, the doormen--and told myselfthat I might never see these people again, after 13 years with thisteam."
In February,Salmon reported to spring training as a long shot to make the club ("Mymain goal was simple: Don't embarrass myself," he says), but after hitting.340 with four home runs, he was back on the 25-man roster. Now the onetimeface of the franchise--"Mr. Angel" holds the team's career records forhomers, slugging percentage, runs and walks--is providing some much-needed popin the heart of the order.
His knees stillprevent him from playing every day--Salmon sits at least two games a week--buthe has made the most of his at bats: Through Sunday he ranked second on theteam in homers (five) and slugging percentage (.500). On May 6 in Toronto heappeared in rightfield for the first time since July 2004, when knee andshoulder problems forced him to DH for a month before he was put on thedisabled list. It gave him the satisfaction of knowing he was leaving the gameon his own terms.
"The waythings ended [in '04], I just kind of limped out of the game; that seasonseemed to zap a lot of the fun I've had over the years," says Salmon."I didn't want to have that bitter taste, and by being here now, I can sayI've erased that bitterness. I'm enjoying every moment of this."
On the WayUp
Based on their hot starts and parent clubs' needs, these top prospects couldarrive in the majors ahead of schedule.
DARIC BARTON(right), 20, 1B, A's
The Oakland lineup needs a spark, and Barton, a first-round pick in 2003 and anon-base machine (.413 OBP at Triple A Sacramento through Sunday), could becalled up to replace slumping first baseman Dan Johnson (.177 battingaverage).
MIKE PELFREY, 22,RHP, Mets
New York's rotation has been hit hard by injuries, and fill-ins Jose Lima andJeremi Gonzalez may not pan out. The Mets' next best option: this fireballer(2.89 ERA, 50 K's in two minor league stops), a first-round pick last June.
JERED WEAVER, 23,RHP, Angels
With L.A.'s starters (including his older brother, Jeff) struggling (5.12 ERA),this 2004 first-round pick (2.79 ERA, 50 K's in 42 innings at Triple A SaltLake) should make his debut earlier than expected.
CHUCK SOLOMON (HAMELS)
HANDLEWITH CARE - Hamels threw fewer than 200 minor league innings because ofinjuries but dominated when healthy.
BRAD MANGIN (BARTON)