It's his arm, or it's not. It's his mechanics, or it's not. It's his command or his choices or the hitters or the workload or the decisions he made last offseason. Or it's not.
Hamels goes through them all, runs them through his head, sleeps on them, ices an elbow that was sore in spring, and then goes out and gives up four runs in 5 1/3 innings. He throws harder, then softer, then smarter and he's sure he's gaining on it, and then he looks around to find runners on base.
He hates it, of course. He didn't come here to be average, even below average, to be the guy they give the ball to and then have everybody take two steps back to cover the gaps. He came here to throw 260 innings and win 18 games and be the World Series MVP, which pretty much describes April through October 2008.
But this, now this is unacceptable. He's losing more than he's winning. His ERA is near 4½. His velocity isn't good, which is a little alarming, though it's not horrible, either. Hitters sometimes seem to be on everything, though. In about 34 fewer regular-season innings than last year, he gave up 13 more hits. In 35 playoff innings last year he gave up two home runs. This year, in 14 2/3? Six, including three to left-handed hitters.
On the eve of Hamels' Game 3 start against the Yankees at Citizens Bank Park, his manager, Charlie Manuel, said, "Every time he goes out and pitches it's an adventure." He also said he trusts him and that he expects him to throw a good game. Still, an adventure.
Baseball managers generally aren't keen on adventures, particularly not in the final days of October. It is why Pedro Martinez(notes) – and not Hamels – was assigned Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. And it's why Joe Blanton(notes) – and not Cliff Lee(notes) – will get Game 4, because Lee never has in the big leagues pitched on three days' rest and now is not the time to find out if he can, especially if he's not begging for the ball.
Meantime, the Phillies send out Hamels hoping it'll be a good day but not really sure it will be. It's not at all what they had last season, but he is the pitcher who's been right here, on this mound at this time of year, and there has to be some value in that.
They also arrive at a pivotal place in the series. Hamels has struggled and Blanton has pitched only 9 2/3 innings in four weeks. They'll face Andy Pettitte(notes) and, likely, on three days' rest, CC Sabathia(notes). If this thing gets rolling downhill on them, if Hamels and Blanton don't pitch well, the series could be over fast, and all that work they did in Game 1 will be gone.
This is where Cole Hamels stands in and extends all the good things the Phillies did in New York, where he wears out the Yankees with his disappearing changeup and negates some of what looks like a mismatch in Game 4.
This is where Hamels turns a season that Manuel pointed out was "kind of freakish."
If he only knew how. Bright and engaging and honest, Hamels admitted he's spent most of the year in pitching limbo. Justin Verlander(notes) knows the place. So does Josh Beckett(notes). You're a kid and you pitch to the end of the World Series and then, like that, something has happened and you just don't get those same outs anymore. The flares that fell foul land fair. The wide strike zone goes narrow. A sore elbow lingers a little. It just happens.
"Some of it was I wasn't able to locate as well earlier in the season," Hamels said, "and then it gets frustrating because I've been able to locate pitches or to throw to hitters and get guys out that you know you should get out, and you're not. So that becomes frustrating.
"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."
Yeah, it happens. And you might figure this World Series has a couple of sharp edges to it, one in which Hamels has another chance or two to straighten out this thing and the other in which he has to drag all these uncertainties (and hittable fastballs) out there in front of everybody.
"It's just coming back and delivering," he said, "and I still have an opportunity to help this team out and win some big games."
"You know," Moyer said, "I don't know where he is at this point. I know he's working hard trying to grasp what he didn't have from last year. My advice, and what I'll say to him, 'Cole, you're one pitch away.' "
All those innings, the good ones and the crummy ones, Moyer said, meant nothing. Those pitches are gone. It sounds good coming from Moyer, and Hamels, 21 years his junior, certainly has heard it before. But this is October. And those are the Yankees. And it's no time to wonder why you aren't the pitcher you expect yourself to be.
Just then in the clubhouse, Hamels wandered past. Moyer nodded toward him.
"It's a difficult game," he said. "Ask anybody who's played it."