The return of Cole Hamels brings optimism

Hamels struck out five in six solid innings in his debut. Credit: Getty Images Hamels struck out five in six solid innings in his debut. Credit: Getty Images

Minutes after Cole Hamels revealed during spring training that he was about a month behind the rest of the pitchers and would miss most of April, Ryan Howard just shrugged when he heard the news. The Big Piece tried to be positive. The communications major from Missouri State University did his best spin.

Howard said that it would be better to be missing Hamels out of the gate rather than missing him at any other point in the season.

“Hopefully Cole comes back right when we’re in the thick of things,” Howard said. “Maybe when he comes back he’ll be in mid-season form.”

Well, Hamels appeared to be just that when he faced the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday night in Chavez Ravine. Hamels was exceedingly sharp for the first four innings. The only real blemish was walking good-hitting pitcher Zack Grienke. That set the stage for Yasiel Puig, who followed with an RBI triple.

But Hamels, who lost, pitched well. He dazzled with his devastating changeup, a plus fastball and a good cutter. Hamels looked much better against the Dodgers than he did during any game in April of 2013. Hamels also provided hope.

“I’m guessing we’ll be right there in the mix by the time Cole gets back,” Cliff Lee said before the West Coast trip. “I think that puts us in a good place with our starting pitching.”

If Lee, A.J. Burnett and Hamels pitch like they have recently, the Phillies will certainly be in ballgames.

“Having that trio healthy and pitching good, will be huge for the Phillies,” an NL scout said. “Those three are as good as any three starters in the NL East. Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez haven’t pitched badly. Barring injury, the Phillies have good starting pitching. But there are questions about the bullpen and their offense.”

There are signs the bullpen is coming around. Jonathan Papelbon has pitched well after blowing a save in Texas during the team’s initial series of the season. Mike Adams has thrown two clean innings since returning from the disabled list.

“I know he’s been inconsistent but I still like Jake Diekman,” the NL scout said. “When he harnesses his stuff, watch out.”

Sandberg obviously likes Diekman, who leads the Phillies with 11 appearances.

And then there is the offense. Chase Utley is in the running for NL player of the month, thanks to his hot bat. Ryan Howard, who is a notorious slow starter, is heating up. Ben Revere is hitting the ball hard and Domonic Brown is taking what pitchers are giving him.

“The Phillies look a lot better than they did when they left spring training,” the NL scout said. “People might forget how awful they looked in March. Being around .500 looked like a reach the way they limped out of Florida. It goes back to this, if they can stay healthy, who knows what can happen?”

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