Phillies' Hamels already a comeback kid

SAN FRANCISCO — The last time Cole Hamels was on the mound, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said he saw the Cole Hamels of old.

The way Manuel was talking — "When he's really good, he's good the same way he was before" — he made Hamels sound like someone in his mid-30s. Or someone recovering from a major elbow operation.

Hamels is 26. His left arm has never been cut open.

But Hamels, who will face the Giants on Tuesday in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, has already experienced enough in his relatively brief career to be enjoying a revival.

He has regained the form that made him a World Series Most Valuable Player in 2008, establishing himself as one of the Phillies' tri-aces and looking nothing like the pitcher who had a 10-11 record and 4.36 ERA last year.

He pitched better this season than his 12-11 record indicated, posting a career-best ERA of 3.06. He struck out a career-high 211 and topped 200 innings for the second time.

"Things aren't going to be easy in life, especially in the game of baseball," Hamels said. "The people that get through it are the ones that make the adjustments and strive to be better."

Hamels' problems last season are traced to the preceding winter. Because his 2008 season extended almost into November, Hamels took time off. He went on talk shows and basked in his newfound celebrity. He signed a three-year, $20.5 million contract.

"There were a lot of things that were on his plate that offseason," teammate Shane Victorino said.

The less demanding offseason workout regimen affected his conditioning. He had a tight elbow in spring training. Then in the regular season he twisted an ankle and was hit by a line drive.

"He had a hard-luck year," Manuel said.

But the season wasn't a total loss.

Watching Cliff Lee lead the Phillies to their second consecutive NL title, Hamels said he thought about adding a cut fastball to his arsenal. And Phillies players said Hamels appeared to be motivated by his failures. He reported to camp in better shape.

Lee was traded to the Mariners, but Hamels gained a new mentor in Roy Halladay. Like Hamels, Halladay experienced ups and downs early in his career. In his third major-league season, Halladay was such a mess, the Blue Jays sent him to Class A to rebuild himself.

"He's got a better work routine," Manuel said of Hamels. "Learned a lot from Roy."

Brad Lidge said Hamels was pushed by Halladay. And when the Phillies acquired Roy Oswalt in July, he had yet another veteran to push him.

"It creates competition," Lidge said. "Nobody wants to be the guy who isn't as good as the other two."

dhernandez3@tribune.com

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