First Opening Day start sign of Hamels' importance

First Opening Day start sign of Hamels' importance

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Cole Hamels cradled the World Series MVP trophy in his hands that chilly October night in 2008.

He was the conquering hero of Philadelphia.

He almost single-handedly delivered the city its first championship since 1983, when the 76ers won the NBA title. But Hamels would continue to prove his worth in the coming years. He would make two National League All-Star teams and finish in the top 10 in NL Cy Young Award voting twice. He would be part of one of the greatest rotations in baseball history in 2011, when the Phillies won a franchise record 102 games.

He then signed a six-year, $144 million contract extension in July, proving monetarily he was one of the best pitchers in baseball.

But yet he had never started Opening Day until this year, which he'll do when he opens the Phillies' season Monday at 7:10 p.m. ET against the Braves at Turner Field.

"It really is [an honor]," he said. "A lot of great pitchers have had that honor, and to be one of them, it's something I will cherish. To be able to get your team off to the right start sets the tone for the entire season. It's something I'll be able to remember for a really long time. At the same time, I'm looking forward to the season. It's going to be a great season."

Hamels is one of the remaining core members of the '08 championship team. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz are the others.

He is the youngest, at 29.

He said he signed his extension because he believes in the future of the organization, despite an 81-81 finish last year that left the Phillies out of the postseason for the first time since 2006. Still, Hamels does acknowledge the time to win with this group is narrowing.

"You don't want to see it, but you understand the game of baseball is a very small window," Hamels said. "And you have to do very well for that period of time that you have. So I think -- even though you don't want to hear it -- it's more or less just the knowledge that you have to give it everything you can while you can, because it's going to be taken away really fast and you don't want to regret anything.

"I think that's kind of the idea behind what we have to do. We have to perfect everything we can. We have to play as hard as we possibly can. Because it's going to disappear fast, and I don't want it to disappear. That's why I still signed here, because I firmly believe we have a great team and we can win the World Series. And the organization wants to see that and the fans want to see that. And I think that's the ingredients that you need to succeed, and we have to push the limits."

Hamels did not start Opening Day in 2009 because of an elbow injury. He did not start Opening Day each of the previous three seasons because Roy Halladay got the nod.

Halladay is cause for serious concern as the season starts. He hasn't looked anything close to the dominant pitcher he had been in the past.

That should put more pressure on Hamels to perform.

"I think all of us need to do that," he said. "I don't think it's necessarily the pitching staff. I think it's the 25 guys on the team have to, along with the coaches. We have to motivate each other. We have to stay positive no matter if one guy goes down. That's what was hard with last year -- we weren't able to push to our top limits, and I think that's what we have to do this year and I know we're capable of it. And I think we've realized that. When you take a step back, you know you can take a couple of steps forward, and I think that's what we're doing."

That is the hope. If Hamels leads the rotation, the Phillies certainly have a better chance of getting back to the postseason. But it will be difficult to usurp the Nationals, who finished with the best record in baseball last season.

"Very close," Hamels said, when asked if the Phillies were close to winning the World Series again. "But when the time comes and we have to step between the lines, we have to play the very best baseball we can for 173 games. We have to look at it that way. If we don't take that sort of approach, then we're selling ourselves short. That's the attitude that we're getting. You can feel it in the clubhouse. You can see the work ethic. This is something that we want to do. We want to win 173 games and that's what we going to play for."

He can get them off on the right foot Monday.

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