Hamels accountable after unique debut
Though in terms of his preparation it essentially equated to the first start of Spring Training, Cole Hamels exited his unique season debut with that same competitive edge that has made him one of the game’s top pitchers for more than a decade.
“I expect to help this team win,” Hamels said. “When you don’t win and you’ve put the team in a hole early with three runs, it makes it tough.”
Hamels’ much-anticipated return to the mound occurred as the Braves lost, 5-1, to the Orioles on Wednesday night at Camden Yards. He cruised through the first two innings in scoreless fashion, stumbled during a three-run third inning and then continued to build his endurance while retiring the only batter he faced in the fourth.
“I didn’t expect him to be perfect,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after Hamels allowed three runs while throwing 52 pitches over 3 1/3 innings.
Quite honestly, it was hard to know what to expect from Hamels, who hadn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 28, 2019. He missed all of Spring Training with left shoulder inflammation and then developed left triceps tendinitis, which forced him to miss the first eight weeks of this shortened season. The only time he had even faced hitters in nearly a full calendar year occurred when he threw two rounds of live batting practice within the past 10 days.
With that in mind, it was encouraging to see him retire 10 of 14 batters faced. But as Hamels assessed his outing, he was hard on himself for allowing the three-run third to develop like it did against the bottom of Baltimore’s lineup.
Austin Hays, who batted eighth, got things started by hitting a double against a changeup. Andrew Velazquez then drew a walk after falling behind with an 0-2 count to set the stage for one-hole hitter Hanser Alberto to double against another changeup.
“I just hung a few changeups there,” Hamels said. “I know especially to those guys late in the lineup, I have to get those guys out. I can’t walk the No. 9 hitter. That right there is really what shifted the game. I have to be able to not give in. I have to be able to get him out.”
It’s certainly unique to see a team in the thick of a playoff race willing to give starts to somebody in Hamels’ situation. The Braves have just a 2 1/2-game lead in the National League East with 10 games remaining.
But given the state of their rotation, it actually makes perfect sense to give Hamels a chance to accelerate his preparations. The 36-year-old veteran will attempt to make three regular-season starts and get his pitch count up to 80-90 pitches before getting a chance to improve the 3.48 ERA he’s produced over 16 playoff starts.
“If he feels healthy tomorrow and the next day when he does his side [session], he’ll be fine,” Snitker said.
Hamels will likely attempt to throw between 65-70 pitches when he makes his next start on Monday against the Marlins. He’ll try to establish the fastball better than he did during this debut. He thinks the inability to do so led to those two changeups resulting in hits during the third.
“A three-spot is definitely not the kind of number you want to give up,” Hamels said. “It’s just -- for me, it’s unacceptable. I’ve got to be able to be better. Regardless of whether this is the beginning of what I’m trying to do, I’ve obviously done this for a long time. I need to be able to put up zeros, and I need to be able to get those guys out.”
Along with being accountable and highly competitive, Hamels also has a good sense of humor. He showed this side of himself when asked about the fact he briefly forgot about this year’s safety protocols, as he attempted to hand the ball to Snitker when being removed during the fourth.
“I didn’t know what [Snitker] was doing,” Hamels said. “He was standing on the grass. So I was like, ‘Are we talking?’ I had no clue what was going on. Freddie [Freeman] was the one who had to push me off the mound. I was like, ‘Thanks buddy.’ He’s a good teammate.”