Hamels close to season-ready

Hamels close to season-ready

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Cole Hamels had barely stepped on the dirt for the short walk to the clubhouse, when 8,891 fans stood in show of their appreciation.

Despite the 79-degree heat, the team's ace lefty finished his 74-pitch, six-inning effort without breaking a sweat. In his first home start, Hamels began by retiring the first 14 batters before giving up a solo home run to Evan Longoria, one of Major League Baseball's top prospects.

By then, it didn't matter. Hamels had again shown why he is fast becoming one of baseball's best pitchers, as he enters only his second full season. The 24-year-old shook off a 12.60 ERA in his previous two Grapefruit League starts, and dazzled the Rays with his array of pitches, notably his unfair changeup.

"I was able to almost close my eyes and throw it, and knew exactly where it was going to go," Hamels said. "That was good to see, I just need to repeat it when it really counts."

He's getting close to that point. The lefty has two more spring outings before his April 2 regular season debut against the Washington Nationals, in the Phillies' second game of the regular season. In ramping up to speed, Hamels said his velocity is returning, which allows for his fastball and change up to achieve the desired separation.

Hamels joked that he received plenty of heckling in the bullpen while warming up, from Phillies and Rays fans. The ribbing from the opposition was understandable, but the chiding from Phillies fans may have originated from his unhappiness with having his contract renewed for $500,000.

Not that Hamels cares, but his complaints have led to a portrayal as a whiner in some circles. He's going to "prove his worth," as he said, in the only way he knows: by pitching. He said his money concerns are behind him.

"I spoke my mind that day and the day after and that gets it out, then you go back to concentrating on baseball and being a team player," Hamels said. "It's out the door and I'm focused on baseball. That's what I'm here to do."

Manager Charlie Manuel believes Hamels will win 20 games as early as this season, and could emerge as a 220-inning workhorse.

"That's when he finishes games he starts," Manuel said. "We still have to watch him. He got hurt in the past. At the same time, when he's pitching good, why not turn him loose?"

That's fine with Hamels, who demolished the Rays, then soaked in the accolades.

"That was nice," he said. "I had some great heckling in the bullpen and loved it. To have the fans cheering when you walk out makes it that much more special."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.