MIAMI -- A year ago, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels was being hammered as hard as his pitches.
It's hard to recall now that he is pitching so well, now that his general manager has anointed him the likely MVP on a star-studded staff, but the 2009 Hamels was a mess.
His fastball wasn't jumping, but his ERA was -- more than a run higher than 2008. He couldn't get in touch with his karma, but opponents had no such trouble with his pitches. The more he staggered, the more his head spun like a breaking ball.
By October, in one of those hair-trigger verdicts Philadelphians are famous for, the darling had become the despised. If, like his wife, Heidi, Hamels had been a "Survivor" contestant, plenty of fans were ready to vote him off the island.
Pointed diagnoses were flying at 90 m.p.h. and faster. Hamels, beloved just 12 months earlier, suddenly was "too distracted," "too West Coast," "too soft."
"It was all bull. A bunch of bull," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. flared Tuesday afternoon as he watched the Marlins' grounds crew ready the field for Hamels' start. "It was people who don't know anything about the guy."
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, when Hamels took the damp mound at Sun Life Stadium, trying to keep the Phillies alone in first place. He struck out 13 batters in 6 2/3 innings as the Phillies defeated the Marlins, 2-1, on Tuesday night. The talk, the struggles had dissipated, nearly as quickly as the South Florida rainstorms that had punctuated the day.
Thanks to more off-season throwing, the addition of a cutter, and perhaps his new role as a parent, Hamels, his 10-10 record entering the game notwithstanding, is again among the game's elite pitchers.
Going into his rain-delayed start, he had thrown 25 consecutive scoreless innings and had a 1.83 ERA in his last 12 starts, fanning 84 and walking just 18 in that span.
"I view him as the MVP of our staff in some ways," said Amaro, warming to his defense. "Here's a guy who ought to have 17 wins right now and doesn't. But not for a lack of the way he's handled it, physically and mentally. He had every right to blow up. He had every right to be (ticked) off about not getting any support."
But Hamels didn't snap. He rarely got one of those disgusted looks on his tanned face, the ones that seemed to suggest he was never supposed to be hit.
And on those increasingly infrequent occasions of difficulty, like when he yielded three singles and a scoreless-streak-ending run in Tuesday's first inning against Florida, he seems more capable of coping. Like iron-willed new staff mate Roy Halladay, he seems to have developed a routine that he adheres to the way pine tar clings to a bat.
Most starters won't talk on the day they pitch. Hamels has extended the silence. Asked by a reporter on Monday afternoon if he had a minute to talk, Hamels, who was texting at his locker, said "No, I do not."
The discipline, said Amaro, was all part of the maturation process for a pitcher who was deemed a phenom the instant he showed up in the big leagues, even though he was merely 22.
"He pitched so much his first two full seasons in the big leagues (1831/3 innings in 2007, 2271/3 in '08)," said pitching coach Rich Dubee. "You're not ready to do that at that age, to pitch at the level he did. He was too good for himself.
"Last year he was probably tired. He got frustrated that he wasn't capable of pitching the way he thought he should and he started competing against himself. He's grown up that way tremendously. That's probably been his biggest adjustment."
Amaro said success came so easily that people assumed Hamels was "a ready-made package," a lefthanded stud ready to anchor the Phillies' rotation, a la Steve Carlton, well into the 21st century.
"But he was 22," said Amaro, "just 22. "People forget. He's still a young man. He's what, 26? I've talked to some of the other veteran pitchers and they say, 'I really didn't learn how to pitch until I was 28, 29, 30 years old.' "
While acknowledging that Hamels clearly had made great strides psychologically, Dubee said not to underestimate the physical adjustments the pitcher made. He arrived in Clearwater with a much livelier arm. That's because the lefthander, who typically eschewed such throwing, played catch all winter.
"He prepared much better. He threw almost continuously, with very little time off," Dubee said. "He kept his arm moving. Before, he didn't do that and he was very, very slow getting started in spring training. He never had velocity. This year he had velocity from day one."
Hamels tweaked his curveball and added a cutter. And he could get his rejuvenated fastball past batters more consistently. Hitters who used to know, in Dubee's words, "that it was 50-50 they were getting a fastball or change-up" suddenly had much more to consider. "Now they have to be concerned with four pitches."
A few hours before Tuesday's start, Hamels, perfectly attired in jeans and, despite the heat, a long-sleeved, black mock-turtleneck shirt, walked silently into the Phillies' locker room. It was the stride of confidence.
And why not?
"He's been one of the best pitchers in baseball, without question," Amaro said. "He's been one of the best lefthanders, if not the best lefthander, in our league. He's been fantastic.
"He's always wanted to be the best. That's never changed. He's always been very, very demanding on himself. That's what made him so good so young. He wanted to be perfect."