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Cole Hamels was 14 years old when he realized the power of the changeup. "It was the summer of 1998, and I was watching a ton of Padres games," says Hamels, who was about to begin his freshman year at Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego. "Every night there was Hells Bells and Trevor Hoffman entering the game in the ninth inning, dominating with that changeup of his. The Padres got to the World Series that year because of that pitch. I'd think to myself, I need that pitch."
Last Friday night, in a steady drizzle in Cincinnati, major league hitters got their first looks at Hamels's change--a pitch the now 22-year-old Phillies phenom perfected while developing into one of the top prospects in baseball. In his highly anticipated big league debut the wiry 6'3", 175-pound lefthander, who also can locate a 93-mph fastball and a tumbling curve with precision, allowed one hit and struck out seven, including five on low-80s changeups, in five shutout innings. Hamels left with a 2--0 lead but did not get the decision in Philadelphia's 8--4 win.
As with any good changeup, Hamels throws his with the same arm speed and motion as his fastball. "The pitch is nasty," Reds leftfielder Austin Kearns says of the off-speed offering. "He disguises it really well. You think it's a fastball coming at you, and you guess wrong."
The Phillies' first-round pick in 2002, Hamels quickly lived up to his billing. Since making his pro debut in '03, he had gone 14--4 in the minors, with a 1.43 ERA and 273 strikeouts in 1951/3 innings. All that stopped him the last two years were injuries to his left elbow, left hand and lower back. After just three starts for 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 to Philadelphia.
With Hamels's arrival--a shot in the arm for a rotation that has been the team's weakness--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 hits in 152/3 innings. A 2--1 win over Cincinnati on Sunday was Philadelphia's 13th victory in 14 games, moving the team within one game of the first-place Mets in the NL East. "Everything's clicking for us right now," catcher Mike Lieberthal says, "and adding [ Hamels] is like making a trade to add a top pitcher to our team. That's a great boost for us."
As affable and easygoing off the field as a typical SoCal native, Hamels occasionally reveals a mean streak on the mound. During a game in his senior year of high school, he had a no-hitter going when an opposing player tried, unsuccessfully, to lay down 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 his stuff that he rarely studies scouting reports on hitters or watches video.
The biggest question facing Hamels is, Can he stay healthy? "Talent doesn't matter when you 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 American Ball Park on Friday to watch Hamels attain his goal were 12 relatives and friends, including parents Gary and Amanda and girlfriend Heidi Strobel, a former Survivor contestant and Playboy cover girl. (The two met during an exhibition game two years ago in Clearwater, Fla.)
For Hamels the most surreal moment of his debut came in the first inning, when Reds centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. stepped to the plate. "I felt like I was playing a video game," he says, explaining that he had played Griffey's Nintendo game religiously as a kid. Hamels needed only three pitches to strike out his boyhood idol, the final one an 82-mph changeup that Griffey could only stare at as it floated over the heart of the plate.