There they sat, the greatest rotation in history that has yet to actually perform.
From left to right, coming to you live from a makeshift interview room at the Phillies’ spring-training complex:
Roy Halladay, the reigning National League Cy Young winner and 2003 recipient of the AL award.
Joe Blanton, the Ringo Starr of the group — or perhaps the Pete Best, considering he might not last long.
Cliff Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young winner.
Roy Oswalt, a five-time top five finisher in the Cy Young balloting.
And Cole Hamels, my pick to win the 2011 award.
That’s right, Hamels, and not simply because he appeared in midseason form in his first throwing session Monday, drawing raves from Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee and other club officials.
No, I’m picking Hamels — No. 4 in the Phillies’ rotation, No. 1 for just about any other club — because of his physical and mental evolution. Because of his brilliance in the second half of last season. And because, at 27, he is the only Phillies starter entering his prime.
Halladay and Oswalt will turn 34 this season, Lee 33. Each is capable of unleashing a 20-win, 250-inning, sub 2.50 ERA masterpiece — heck, Halladay did it just last season. Still, Hamels is the only one of the group whose best days should lie ahead.
“He’s the real deal,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said after Monday’s news conference. “He’s as good a pitcher as there is out there.”
As good as Halladay and Lee?
Never mind that Hamels finished 12-11 last season; he had the fifth-worst run support in the NL. Instead, check his final 16 starts. Hamels allowed one earned run or none in 11 of them, including a two-inning playoff tuneup, for a 2.07 ERA.
He then continued his roll in the postseason, pitching a five-hit shutout against the Reds in the Division Series clincher, allowing two runs in six innings against the Giants in Game 3 of the NLCS.
This was not the guy who struggled throughout 2009, his frustration peaking during the World Series when he said, “I can’t wait for it to end.” This was a guy who added a cut fastball last season, learned to focus properly, prepared zealously for each start.
“In ’09, I felt like I had to take the world and carry it on my shoulders,” said Hamels, who — lest anyone forget — was the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP. “Now I’ve realized you can’t do that. You don’t need to think that way. I’m a lot more at peace mentally.”
His comfort was evident during Monday’s news conference as he joked with his older teammates, at one point boasting he would compete with Lee to be the rotation’s best hitter.
The previous day, in a 10-minute conversation with FOXSports.com, Hamels displayed a different kind of maturity as he reflected on where he is, and how far he has come.
So, Cole, what’s it like to be the No. 4 starter?
“I’ve never even thought of it that way,” Hamels said. “I just think, ‘I’m the youngest guy. I have so much to learn. What better way to learn than from guys like this?’”
He spoke of Halladay, Lee and Oswalt overcoming injuries and inconsistency. He spoke of his own evolution into a pitcher with better composure and a wider repertoire.
“I learned a new pitch,” Hamels said, referring to his cutter. “Anytime you learn a new pitch, you’ve got to learn it fast in the big leagues. And I learned how to keep everything in check. Keeping my emotions in check. Planning better for a game. How to attack the situation. I think I just kind of grew in that regard.
“I felt like I was a lot more prepared for every game. I put a lot of time into working out, studying film. If a situation came up, I knew had to adjust. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every moment, every game. That was fun.”
Hamels’ poor run support bothered his teammates, not that they did much about it. In August, Hamels lost back-to-back starts to the Mets by 1-0 scores. Catcher Brian Schneider said, “he easily should have had 18 to 20 wins.” Yet, Hamels remained Cole Cool, “creating my own game within my head.”
It says a lot that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel always stood by Hamels, Manuel the baseball lifer from Buena Vista, Va., Hamels the kid from San Diego with the Hollywood looks. Manuel admired Hamels’ competitive spirit, all that the pitcher had accomplished.
And now, it is time for Hamels to accomplish more.
He opened last season as the Phillies’ No. 2 starter behind Halladay. Dropping down to No. 4 might work to his benefit — the Phils’ offense, in theory, should produce greater run support against lesser pitching. But Hamels, like the more senior members of the Phillies’ rotation, is shutting out all such noise.
He barely blinks when I tell him that I’m picking him to win the Cy Young.
“All I have is one game coming up,” Hamels says, smiling. “That’s all I’m focused on.”