SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Cole Hamels has done plenty during his 13-year career, making it to four All-Star Games while pitching in a pair of World Series, winning both a ring and MVP honors in the 2008 Fall Classic.
One thing he’s never done? Pitched against one of his former teams.
The Cubs open the regular season in Arlington against the Rangers, and while Cubs manager Joe Maddon won’t reveal his season-opening rotation for a few more days, it’s likely that Hamels will get a start during the three-game set in Texas, where he played parts of four seasons from 2015-18.
That made Wednesday a dress rehearsal of sorts, as Hamels returned to Surprise Stadium to make his first start of the spring. The left-hander tossed a pair of uneventful scoreless innings, helping the Cubs to a 9-5 win over the Rangers.
“It’s almost like they know what I know they know is coming; it’s going to be a game, but it would be really fun,” Hamels said. “It’s a tremendous place to play. That’s where I’ll be raising my family, in Dallas, Texas. It’s a good organization, and they have some really good people there that I really admire. It’s sort of bittersweet, but it’s almost an honor to be able to pitch against a team you played for.”
Hamels stopped by the Rangers clubhouse after arriving at the ballpark Wednesday, catching up with “anybody and everybody,” including former teammates, staff members and ballpark employees.
Then he went out for his first start of the spring, efficiently retiring six of the seven batters he faced. He allowed two hits, one of whom was caught stealing.
“It was good, just to be able to get out there against guys that are actually swinging the bat against you,” Hamels said. “Just really trying to establish the fastball; that’s something that the first couple games, I really try to get that as being kind of a key for my game plan.”
Hamels was 4-3 with a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts for the Cubs last year after being traded from Texas to Chicago in late-July. Having pitched to a 4.72 ERA in his 20 starts for the Rangers, some wondered why the Cubs were gung ho to acquire him in the first place.
Hamels proved he had something left in the tank, and after altering his offseason program by enlisting a “full-time posture specialist” to help him with his workouts, the 35-year-old believes he’s stronger and healthier than he’s been in a couple years.
Maddon sees a pitcher inspired to have a big year.
“I think he’s motivated to go out there and maybe prove some people from last year who thought he was off a little bit,” Maddon said. “He’s so competitive and really well thought out. He’s a pleasure to be around, man.”
Hamels admits to being driven by his subpar performance and injury issues in 2017 and the first four months of 2018, looking to show people that he has plenty left in the tank at an age many view as being the beginning of the end for most players.
“With what is at stake for this team and in this division, you have to stay on guard and be fired up to be ready to play because this is not going to be an easy matter this season,” Hamels said. “You always have to find those challenges and go out there and be the type of guy to answer the call.
“I feel like I still have a lot to offer. I still feel like I haven’t hit my full potential. I like to know that, because it pushes me to go a little bit harder and see where I can go and reach.”
The Cubs picked up Hamels’ $20 million option last fall, but he’ll be a free agent at the end of this season. He’ll be entering his age-36 season, but Hamels has no plans to retire any time soon.
“Hell no,” Hamels said when asked if he might call it quits after the 2019 season. “I really loved what [Justin] Verlander had to say about a month ago; his goal is to play until he’s 45. That’s always been my goal. I played with Jamie Moyer; he was the epitome of a guy that played and took it serious in the sense that when you’re 35, 40, 45, you’re not done.”
Like the rest of his Cubs teammates, Hamels has great expectations for this season, noting there’s “a lot at stake” for his team in the coming months.
For Hamels, his first start might be against the team for which he won 38 games, though he believes that game would have a far different feeling than the one in which he pitched Wednesday.
“It was good,” Hamels said. “I think it would be a little bit more fun when they know I’m going to throw more than just two pitches.”