Hamels uniquely suited to mentor young pitchers

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Hamels uniquely suited to mentor young pitchers

When the Phillies gave Cole Hamels a $144 million extension in the summer of 2013, they did so with the understanding that he'd not only headline their rotation through 2018 but also help bridge the gap between two eras of Phillies baseball.

In just eight seasons, Hamels has already played through three very different organizational periods.

He debuted in 2006, when the Phils were a solid, rising team that hadn't made the playoffs in 13 years.

He was World Series MVP in 2008 and made 96 starts from 2009-11 for teams that spent a ton of money and traded away numerous prospects to supplement the core with top-tier talent. The results were another World Series appearance, a trip to the NLCS and a franchise-record 102 wins.

As age and injuries caused a rapid team decline in 2012 and 2013, Hamels remained one of the top pitchers in baseball, even as the losses mounted and changes swept the clubhouse.

And so Hamels, at 30, is already making the transition from student to mentor.

"No matter how old you feel or you think you are, some guy's gonna be younger than you all the time," Hamels told CSN's Jim Salisbury in an exclusive interview Monday.

"... I think that's going to be exciting to be able to talk to some of these guys because we've got some tremendous pitching prospects with [Jonathan] Pettibone, and even Ethan Martin, and I know [Adam] Morgan, and having [Jesse] Biddle."

That's a group of four unfinished products. Hamels was just as raw once upon a time, but never stopped developing, thanks in large part to Jamie Moyer and Roy Halladay, two pitchers who came to the Phillies at the tail-end of extremely successful careers.

Hamels, during his notoriously difficult 2009 season, not only battled opposing hitters but also his own brain. He made things more difficult on himself. He struggled to compartmentalize and focus on the smaller picture within games. His body language was bad. He wore his frustrations on his sleeve.

Hamels is much different now. He's a grown man on the mound in complete control of his emotions whether he's suffering from bad luck, low run support or his own poor command.

"I think a lot of the mental side that I was learning from Jamie, I don't know if I was really applying it all right away, and last year I really applied it more," said Hamels, who lost a career-high 14 games last season but ranked eighth in the NL in WAR.

"So just kind of knowing that I'm able to keep notebooks, and keep my thoughts down so that I can go over them, and never go back down to that other side that you never want to experience. It always keeps you at an even keel.

"You have to center your focus a little bit more. I know the big picture is to pitch nine innings and win a game, but overall, you have to kind of create little mini-games inside the game of baseball, and I think a lot of times that's what I was starting to learn how to do, which I wasn't necessarily able to do early on. It just kind of happened and I went with the flow and obviously had some pretty successful years, but when you're tested at a very tough spot, you have to narrow your focus even more."

Mentally, Hamels had Moyer to rely on. Physically, he looked up to Halladay, the ultimate role model in terms of preparation.

"[Halladay] showing up first, before anybody, and he's older than every single one of the guys in spring training, he always got there first, he always finished first. He didn't let anybody beat him," Hamels said of the future Hall of Famer, who retired in December.

"I think that's ultimately what, if you want to be the best in this game and you want to stay around for as long as he did, you can't let anybody beat you. I think that's kind of the thought I'm going to keep in my head and that's going to keep me pushing a little bit more."

Barring an unforeseen trade, Hamels will likely head a staff that eventually includes Biddle, the Phillies' 2010 first-round lefty who's already experienced highs and lows in his minor-league career. Just two weeks ago, Biddle stood in the same clubhouse as Hamels and discussed his own mental growth process (see story). Biddle admitted that he let too many things consume his mind on the mound in 2013 and, though he dominated his opponents in April, pitched some of the worst games of his life over the summer.

"I think having those types of young guys that have the potential to be [number] one, two, three, four guys in the rotation, they're obviously the future and it's something where you want them to be better or have more knowledge than when they came in," Hamels said.

"And if I can be a part of that, then obviously I've done something right."

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

BOX SCORE

When Aaron Nola pitches like he did Thursday, there aren't too many teams capable of beating him.

Nola was locked in against the Cardinals in the Phillies' 5-1 win, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings with a season-high eight strikeouts (see Instant Replay). His first seven innings were scoreless and his pitch count was at just 89, so he had the chance for his first-ever complete game and the Phillies' first of the season.

But Paul DeJong greeted Nola in the eighth with a solo homer, and after a one-out walk to Matt Carpenter, Nola's day was done. He left to a loud ovation from Phillies fans who have been waiting a long time to see this guy again.

"Well that's the Nola we all have come to know and love," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was outstanding today. ... He was painting on both sides of the plate. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups. I think he got tired in that eighth inning, but it was great to see him rebound from the struggles he's been going through."

Nola had elite command of his two-seam fastball and curveball on this day. Five of his eight strikeouts were looking as he continuously froze Cardinals hitters with two-seamers that started outside and darted back over the outside corner. Everything was low in the zone. The curveball was sharp and biting with late life, and St. Louis' hitters kept swinging over top of it.

This was the Nola worth drafting in the first round. This was the Nola who can legitimately be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do and today was me," Nola said. "I felt confident in all my pitches today and commanding all my pitches when I wanted to. It was all good in those areas.

"I always try to visualize [success]. I know what I'm capable of doing and what pitches I can command. It's just those days where you feel really good about it and you're really confident about executing to both sides of the plate."

Last year during spring training, Mackanin compared Nola's skill set to that of a pitcher he managed in 1985 in the Class A Midwest League. That pitcher was Greg Maddux. 

"I'll just say this and I probably shouldn't, but I'm just gonna say it: Aaron Nola reminds me a bit of [Maddux]," Mackanin said last February.

"He shows no fear, he's very confident in his abilities and he has the uncanny ability to locate his fastball down in the zone on both sides of the plate. And he really believes in himself."

On Thursday, Nola fit every piece of that description. And just like Nick Pivetta built confidence with his nine-strikeout performance last week against the Red Sox that carried over into a 10-K night against the Cardinals (see story), this has a chance to be a real building block for Nola.

Throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of 24 hitters will get you a long way.

"He got ahead of almost every hitter I guarantee you, he was strike one," catcher Cameron Rupp said.  

"And when you do that, that opens up so many doors with your pitch sequence, being able to pitch and get in on guys, maybe throw a purpose pitch for a ball, maybe they swing and you're 0-2 and that opens up the outer half even bigger. He threw strikes, he pounded the zone, and when you do that, you're going to have so much success. 

"That's what he did his first year-and-a-half up here. He got away from locating his pitches and the injuries, I'm sure, didn't help, but he attacked the zone and did a great job for us. ... When you do that, the sky is the limit, and he showed that today."

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Phillies reliever Pat Neshek is having a tremendous, All-Star season, but the restrictions on his usage have become a real concern.

Neshek, who has a 0.63 ERA and 30 scoreless appearances out of 31, induced an inning-ending double play Thursday to get the Phillies to the ninth with a two-run lead. He threw just five pitches in the 5-1 win (see Instant Replay).

But even if the Phillies didn't tack on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, Neshek was not going back out for a save situation in the ninth, Mackanin said.

"I asked him to go back out," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He said he would rather not, he didn't feel like he had it. 

"I would have liked to have sent him back out, obviously, because he's been so effective. However, we've got a good thing going there and if he can only pitch one inning for us, I'll take it. 

"He's been that good and I don't want to disrupt that. That's one area that I don't have to worry about. So, I did ask if he could go back out, he just thought it was better that he didn't."

Moments later, Neshek said he was not asked to go back out for the ninth.

It's the second straight day there have been conflicting messages when it comes to Neshek's availability. Wednesday night, when the Phillies blew a five-run lead and allowed runs in both the eighth and ninth innings as Neshek stayed in the bullpen, Mackanin said that Neshek had told him earlier he was unavailable. But then Neshek said that he was the one told he'd have the day off.

Whichever order of operations has actually occurred the last two games, these restrictions on Neshek's usage are affecting the Phillies late in games and they're sure to have an impact on his trade value as well.

The trade value is the more important thing here long-term because the Phillies are 25 games under .500. Neshek and Howie Kendrick are their two best trade assets, but if you're a contending team, why give up anything of substance for a half-season of Neshek if you don't even know if you can send him out two games in a row?

"He gave me the off day when I showed up," Neshek said Thursday about the middle game of the series. "I don’t know. You guys (the media) are making a big deal out of it."

Did he feel better Thursday?

"Yeah," he said. "I went out there and got the double play.

"We’ve been used a lot this week. I was kind of hoping that I might get a day today. But I understand the state of the bullpen. You have to suck it up and go out there."

Neshek has been used five times in the last seven days, so he does have a point, he has been used a lot. That's the byproduct of being your team's most reliable reliever.

At this stage, Neshek is a safe bet to be the Phillies' All-Star representative, especially because he'd serve an actual purpose in the All-Star Game as a right-handed specialist capable of retiring the best of the best.

"It could happen," he said. "There’s a couple other guys. It’s going to come down to who Joe Maddon wants for his bench. Is it going to be an extra pitcher? Is it going to be an extra hitter? They usually don’t stick with middle relief guys. Yeah, I have the numbers. But the All-Star Game is kind of a hairy thing if you’re not the star guy, if you’re not the save guy. It’s going to come down to do we need a pitcher or do we need a hitter.

"It’s really tough to make it as a middle reliever. It’s hard to get excited about anything that hasn’t happened yet."