Cole Hamels hits on the issues: Team chemistry

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Cole Hamels hits on the issues: Team chemistry

Cole Hamels sat down Monday with CSNPhilly.com for an extensive interview covering a wide range of topics. Here is the first part of our week-long series:

In five of his first six major league seasons, Cole Hamels experienced the thrill of postseason baseball.

But he and his Phillies teammates have spent the last two Octobers at home.

“It’s been miserable,” Hamels said Monday. “I don’t even want to watch the postseason. I want to be part of it.”

In two weeks, Hamels and his teammates will assemble in Clearwater, Fla., to begin their quest to return to the playoffs after two disappointing seasons, the last of which resulted in just 73 wins (the team’s fewest since 2000) and the firing of manager Charlie Manuel.

Want to feel old? Hamels turned 30 last month. And though he’s still younger than many of his teammates, he knows his baseball clock is ticking. He also knows the clock is ticking on this team and that management could concede to a rebuilding effort by midseason 2014 if the club is not in contention.

Hamels says he wants no part of that.

“It will probably be reiterated early in spring training and during the season that we really do have to make it because we don’t want to break it,” Hamels said.

In his first interview of the New Year, Hamels spoke with CSNPhilly.com about a number of topics Monday, including the team’s performance in 2013, clubhouse chemistry and the possibility of rebuilding.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Hamels commented on these topics. He spoke about all three -- and not in positive tones -- in the December issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Hamels took on the issues again Monday.

In fact, he raised the issue of clubhouse chemistry.

The last two seasons “definitely caused some frustrations in the whole team morale,” Hamels said.

He mentioned the firing of Manuel, the number of injuries, and the losing as leading to frustrations and morale problems.

“You have a lot of guys coming in and out and we didn’t know how to handle it,” Hamels said. “I think that was kind of the case. A lot of us had been winning, a lot of us were new, and all we knew was winning, so it was a different sort of perspective for a lot of us that we had to deal with.”

Hamels was asked whether the chemistry issues were a matter of the players not liking each other or the players not liking losing.

“It was not liking losing,” he said. “I think we all get along very well and we’ve done it for numerous years, so I think it was just the losing and not knowing how to handle losing.

“I know that definitely shows a lot about your character when you get a bunch of guys together that aren’t used to losing. Things didn’t go well. So I think that’s something where we know what we have to do in taking the right steps in the right direction.

“I think spring training is going to be a lot more about us functioning as a group together and kind of bringing that camaraderie.”

Hamels was asked whether he believed addressing chemistry would be manager Ryne Sandberg’s first order of business this spring.

“I think so,” Hamels said. “He probably has a laundry list, which I think any guy would, but I think chemistry and getting everybody to get back [together] because we’ve been far apart because we haven’t been on the field. Now that we’re all on the same field, it’s almost like a reunion. We need to almost relearn how guys function and the cliques and what guys are talking about.

“We’re showing signs of it this offseason. Guys are staying more in touch this offseason and that will help.”

The Phillies finished third from the bottom in the NL with just 610 runs (3.77 per game) in 2013. That had some impact on Hamels as poor run support contributed to his career-high 14 losses.

Hamels was quoted in Philadelphia magazine as saying the team’s hitting “sucked.” It’s difficult to argue with that assessment, but still, one has to wonder whether Hamels might have to do some smoothing over with the hitters in spring training.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think a lot of the hitters understood that was not the only quote that was misinterpreted.

“I didn’t pitch well. The relievers weren’t doing a good job. I think we made the most errors we’ve made in a long time. So it was a whole team idea. I think we all understand what our job is and how we need to focus on making it better.

“So I think [teammates] know me pretty well that when things are talked about, they know the whole picture or what was said as opposed to just one thing. I’ve seen a lot of them recently -- they all didn’t think anything about it.”

Hamels seemed to second-guess management in the magazine article when he said you have to know when to start over. That was a reference to rebuilding, a concept the Phillies have stiff-armed.

In Monday’s interview, Hamels was asked if he believed it was time for the Phillies to rebuild.

“I don’t necessarily think so because we have our guys,” he said. “It’s kind of our last leg with a lot of us, so I think it’s a matter of having guys realize that this is the last couple moments of greatness that we have.

“We need to keep it going for as long as we possibly can. There is going to be a point where it does end, but make it on our time, not on somebody else’s time. Make it harder for their decision as opposed to us letting them make that decision a no-brain sort of idea.

“I think that’s where we are. We’re starting to come together to really understand that baseball doesn’t last forever for us individually, but it lasts forever for the city of Philadelphia and it lasts forever for these fans, so we have to make it that we’re something special for these fans.”

If the Phillies are playing poorly at midseason 2014, management could look to begin a rebuilding effort. That could mean several core players will be made available in trades. Could Hamels be one of them? Anything is possible, but management identified him as a player it wanted to build around when it signed him to a $144 million contract extension in July 2012. That could mean Hamels stays as a foundation piece of future clubs.

Cliff Lee, on the other hand, could be dealt if the Phillies falter in the first half of 2014.

Hamels doesn’t want to see that happen.

That’s why a quick start is important for this club.

“I know we’re very good at finishing strong, but at the same time you don’t want to be chasing,” Hamels said. “So we do [have to play well early] because I don’t want to be playing against Cliff Lee. He’s a tremendous pitcher. And I’d hate to be playing against some of the other guys on our team.

“It’s ultimately up to us to make it happen.”

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

BOX SCORE

This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Vince Velasquez might have had the best outing of his season Wednesday night, but the Phillies' bullpen delivered against a tough Miami Marlins lineup. 

Hector Neris nearly had a scoreless ninth inning until Adeiny Hechavarria whacked in a run off a single.

But Neris struck out Derek Dietrich swinging to end the game, 7-4, and extend the Phillies' winning streak to five games (see game story).

"We're going to continue to do the same thing we've been doing," relief pitcher Joely Rodriguez said. "We're not going to change nothing because we're doing well now."

Velasquez got the Phillies to the seventh inning, but manager Pete Mackanin pulled the right-hander once Hechavarria smacked a double off him that knocked in J.T. Realmuto to make the game 5-3.

Rodriguez replaced Velasquez to face Ichiro Suzuki. He retired Suzuki on a line drive to Maikel Franco and got another huge out on Dee Gordon to get the Phillies out of a squeeze late in the game.

"Joely has done a great job his last five outings, that's a real pleasant surprise," Mackanin said. "We knew that he had the ability to potentially do that. All he has to do with his stuff is throw strikes in the situations that he comes in. And he can be very effective as he should tonight. That's a real bonus for us."

In his past six games, including Wednesday night, Rodriguez has pitched six straight scoreless games. He also has a combined four strikeouts and threw less than nine pitches in four of those games.  

Prior to the six-game streak, Rodriguez gave up a combined seven runs and 10 hits in four appearances, but he said he's been working on his mechanics.

"I have more confidence to throw the ball to home plate with my glove in the chest," Rodriguez said. "That helped me a lot to throw the ball and have a more consistent strike zone." 

Even with Rodriguez getting the Phillies out of the seventh inning, they still had to overcome the Marlins' top of the lineup in the eighth. Miami ranks seventh in the majors in runs per game with 4.78. 

Giancarlo Stanton was just starting to find his swing entering the game. The Marlins' cleanup hitter was 9 for 17 over his last four games, including four homers and seven RBIs. 

But when he faced Joaquin Benoit in the top of eighth, Stanton grounded out to Freddy Galvis to retire the side. Stanton was 0 for 3 on the night in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, while Benoit threw five strikes on eight pitches in the eighth. 

"We are a group in the bullpen," Rodriguez said. "We talk to each other, support each other and do the best we can when we go to the mound and try to help the team get a win."