SAN FRANCISCO -- The last time Cole Hamels was on the mound, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said he saw the Cole Hamels of old.
The way Manuel was talking -- "When he's really good, he's good the same way he was before," he said at one point -- made Hamels sound like someone in his mid-30s. Or a pitcher recovering from a major elbow operation.
Hamels is 26. His left shoulder and elbow have never encountered the business end of a scalpel. But Hamels, who will face the San Francisco Giants today in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, has already experienced enough in his relatively brief career to be enjoying a revival.
He has regained the form that made him the World Series most valuable player in 2008, establishing himself as one of the Phillies' tri-aces and looking nothing like the pitcher who had a 4.32 earned-run average last year.
He pitched better this season than his 12-11 record indicated, posting a career-best ERA of 3.06. He struck out a career-high 211 batters and topped 200 innings for the second time.
"Things aren't going to be easy in life, especially in the game of baseball," Hamels said. "The people that get through it are the ones that make the adjustments and strive to be better."
Hamels' problems last season are frequently traced to the preceding winter. Because his 2008 season extended almost into November, Hamels took time off. He went on talk shows and basked in newfound celebrity. He also signed a three-year, $20.5 million contract.
"There were a lot of things that were on his plate that off-season," Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino said.
The less demanding off-season workout regimen affected his conditioning, and he had a tight elbow in spring training.
There was more trouble during the regular season. He twisted an ankle. He was struck by a line drive. He posted his first losing record (10-11) and his worst-ever ERA.
"He had a hard-luck year," Manuel said. "Just seemed like everything bad happened to him."
But the season wasn't entirely lost.
Watching Cliff Lee lead the Phillies to their second consecutive NL pennant, Hamels said he thought about adding a cut fastball -- something he could throw hard that would break in to a right-handed hitter -- to his arsenal. And Phillies players said Hamels appeared to be motivated by his failures.
"He wanted to put to rest the idea that he was anything less than a superstar -- and he is a superstar," closer Brad Lidge said. Lidge said Hamels was always the precocious type, but that something about him was different going into this spring.
"For his age, he's always been very mature," Lidge said. "But if he had any part of him that wasn't mature, it's gone."
Hamels reported to camp in better shape. He was stronger.
Lee was traded to the Seattle Mariners, but Hamels gained a new mentor in Lee's replacement, Roy Halladay, a fitness freak who pushed him to excel.
"I think he's got a better work routine," Manuel said of Hamels. "Learned a lot from Roy."
Like Hamels, Halladay experienced ups and downs early in his career. In his third major league season, he was such a mess that the Toronto Blue Jays sent him to Class A to rebuild himself.
Lidge said Hamels was pushed by Halladay. And when the Phillies acquired Roy Oswalt in July, he had yet another veteran to push him.
"It creates competition," Lidge said. "Nobody wants to be the guy who isn't as good as the other two."
Hamels said that within the first month of the regular season, he started feeling comfortable making the cutter a regular part of his repertoire.
Manuel pointed out that Hamels' velocity is also back up to previous levels. After throwing in the high 80s to low 90s in 2009, Hamels has consistently been in the mid-90s this year -- and with a good changeup.
As proof, consider Hamel's 119th and final pitch in the Phillies' sweep-sealing victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the NL division series: a high fastball right by Scott Rolen for strike three.
"You can't pitch a hitter better than that, the way he set him up," Manuel said.
Just like he used to do it in the old days.