As pitching injuries pile up, Cole Hamels' return gives Phillies shot in the arm

Tim Brown
As pitching injuries pile up, Cole Hamels' return gives Phillies shot in the arm

LOS ANGELES – Veteran left-hander and sometime ace Cole Hamels threw six innings Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was him clearly, because the fastball popped and the changeup shuddered and it said HAMELS across his shoulders. In red. This was the pitcher who'd never lost at Dodger Stadium, summer or fall, who'd won 99 career games, who'd commanded $144 million to keep pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies.

His presence here was significant in that the Phillies, stuck as they are between who they were, who they want to be, and paying for who they were, are pretty much the team general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. envisioned. That was back in February, when their plans on becoming a good team – let's say a presentable team – hinged on health and productivity from the likes of Hamels, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cliff Lee.

Well, Hamels arrived to find his Phillies at 10-10, so neither stressing the rest of the NL East nor a disgrace, the season's personality still waiting. And Hamels was good, the guy everybody remembered, the command freak and game manager with a power streak.

What was remarkable about having Hamels on a big-league mound in late April was this: In a year in which we've seen so many high-end pitchers trudge from the field and straight into an MRI tube, it was comforting to come upon one traveling the other direction.

About three months ago, Hamels revealed he'd suffered from biceps tendinitis in the offseason, the biceps being awfully near to the shoulder and the elbow, which puts it in close proximity to very bad news. And bad news, in case you hadn't noticed, has been going around. There's hardly a starting rotation that hasn't lost innings to whatever's gotten its teeth into the game, including plenty in the Phillies' own division.

So maybe the season turns not on what we see, but what lies out there, in the arms we can't decide are babied or taxed, in the one-size-fits-all programs, in a job that demands more than our ligaments and tendons can withstand. More than ever, the name of the game is attrition, while the proper name of the game is Tommy John, unless it's James Andrews, which is wonderful for the long-term health of a pitcher but not so great for the short-term health of a pitching staff.

Innings are lost and so are games, and seasons, and jobs.

It's perhaps too big of a concept for Hamels to consider with six innings immediately behind him and his hair still stiff with sweat, but his return is significant for the Phillies and a break for a game that is rehabbing the elbows of a couple dozen pitchers since the end of last season, and various body parts for others. That's Matt Harvey in the past year, and more recently Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Kris Medlen, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy and Ivan Nova, among others. The game holds its breath for Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw, and A.J. Burnett, on this field the night before, pitched through a hernia, and it all seems to go on for too long to be quite normal or cyclical.

They break a pitch at a time, and so they heal at the same rate. Kershaw, who has recovered from and rehabbed a strained upper-back muscle (awfully near the shoulder) for a month, will pitch in a minor-league game Friday.

Hamels made 86 pitches against the Dodgers, limiting them to six hits and two runs. He touched 93 with his fastball. He sold his changeup. His breaking ball was fairly consistent. It was good. The Phillies lost 5-2, their first loss in four games, but that was tied to the bullpen, along with an overall inability to hit Zack Greinke.

A few weeks behind his teammates, Hamels made three starts for the Clearwater Threshers of the Florida State League, pushed his pitch count near 100, and showed up Wednesday night looking every bit the pitcher the Phillies will need, given their few inadequacies. Hamels has thrown at least 208 innings the past four seasons and five of the past six, many of those seasons followed by October. He's been one of the sturdy ones. They'll need him now.

"I just keep going forward," he said Wednesday night. "I was worried about what I had to do."

So, he said, he didn't bother himself with the notion the season had started without him, and didn't necessarily even fret over the fact he'd been caught up in the epidemic. When so many pitchers were finding out in February and March they weren't quite right, Hamels was three months into his healing.

"I knew I wasn't feeling comfortable in November," he said. "I knew what I had and knew was I was going to do for it."

By late Wednesday evening, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg had the luxury of explaining why he'd pull Hamels after 86 pitches when he'd said earlier there'd be no undue restrictions. The alternative to being second-guessed about Hamels' light pitch count is not having Hamels at all, which is nothing short of reality in a lot of other clubhouses.

"It was good to see him out there and good to see the way he threw the ball," said Sandberg, whose frail bullpen promises plenty of conversations just like this one. "Not only seeing him, but seeing him with the quality of pitches he had."

Yeah, the Phillies just got healthier. And that makes them a little different.

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