Cole Hamels (cont.)
At one point in high school Hamels worked with Tom House, a former big-league lefthander and a fitness and mental guru who worked with Nolan Ryan as a Texas Rangers pitching coach. House put Hamels on an exercise regimen for his stomach muscles in particular, and to this day Hamels is a true believer in the value of the sit-up. But House gave Hamels one piece of advice that he'll take to the end of his playing days: "You've got a great change-up. Don't let anyone ever change it."
Hamels gravitates to older, mature people and on the Phillies he has become close to Jamie Moyer, the 45-year-old left-hander, a master of the off-speed pitch himself. The two often sit in the dugout together, talking back-door sliders, full-count fastballs and, of course, the change-up. There's probably no one in baseball today using it more or better. Hamels can throw it as soft as 78 miles an hour, and when facing the heart of the order he might throw it as often as 50 percent of the time. When he mixes in a fastball with excellent location and a good breaking ball that he uses sparingly, there's no easy path to first.
Over the years few pitchers have had great long-term success with the change-up as a No. 1 out pitch, especially in this era where every pitch is videotaped and recorded for posterity. That's because many pitchers make some exaggerated movement before throwing a change-up, maybe an extra heave of the shoulders, and thereby tip their pitch. Jones and others who study tape closely can find nothing different in Hamels' fastball and change-up deliveries -- much to their frustration. Meanwhile, Hamels, that old-schooler, is not one to study tape of batters. He's a natural. Make good pitches and outs will come.
This is not to suggest that Hamels is the next Sandy Koufax or Steve Carlton. He has miles to go and, on Wednesday night, the biggest game of his life. He sounds like a guy who wants the ball for the biggest games, and he has already backed up his words this year. But playing in a domed stadium, on turf, in the World Series, on the road, against unfamiliar hitters is something different. The Phillies, so reliant on the long ball, might find that home runs at home, at Citizens Bank Park, are warning-track fly balls at Tropicana Field. Also, against better hitters, Hamels goes so reliably to the change-up on 3-2 counts and 2-1 counts that Tampa Bay might be able to steal on him, as the change-up takes about three-tenths of a second, or longer, to reach home plate than a fastball. Carlos Pena, the Rays' first baseman who hit 31 home runs this year, could do damage to Hamels, even though he's a lefthanded hitter. The Hamels change-up is often low and inside for a lefty batter and Pena feasts there. If Hamels gets behind in the count and Pena guesses correctly on a change-up, the resulting blast could be greeted by cow bells in every direction. If there's a man or two on base when that happens, that could be the one swing of the bat that changes the complexion of the game.
But then expect Hamels to bear down and get the next hitter. He doesn't get rattled easily, and the week-long break before Game 1 is not likely to bother him. "When I go to my bullpen, I try to visualize that there's a hitter out there, and I try to make every pitch count, as though it's a game situation," Hamels said in a Tuesday news conference. He's a mature young man who married at 22. Now he's the best lefthander in the National League, at least according to the league's best hitter. Poor Jones was only a .333 hitter against Hamels this year. Now the American League's best team will see if it can fare any better.