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His story has a nice ring to it

Success of Phillies' Hamels keeps phones busy at his high school.

October 21, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Baxter is a Times staff writer.

"Are you calling about Cole?" the secretary at Rancho Bernardo High said in place of "Hello."

The San Diego-area school is such a baseball powerhouse that scouts refer to it simply as "the Factory." It has turned out seven first-round draft picks in the last 14 years.

One season, it had an entire starting lineup that went on to play professionally.

But when the athletic department phone rings now, the calls are usually about Hamels. Because of all the great players who have come through Rancho Bernardo, it could be argued that none was better than Hamels, who will start for the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday.

"Oh, it's awesome. The whole process has been awesome," said Mark Furtak, a longtime assistant coach at the school. "The best thing before this was Hank's home run in the All-Star game."

That would be the Texas Rangers' Hank Blalock, Rancho Bernardo Class of 1999. But although Hamels (Class of 2002) and Blalock each played at the same school and each made the All-Star game in his first full big league season, Blalock's career has been slowed by injuries and Hamels has emerged as one of the best big-game pitchers in baseball.

"He's a guy that you want to give the ball to every night," teammate Shane Victorino said.

"We've got our ace on the mound," closer Brad Lidge said.

In the National League Championship Series, Hamels turned in a most-valuable-player performance, beating the Dodgers twice by giving up only three runs in two starts. Before that, he held the Milwaukee Brewers scoreless through eight innings in the division series opener.

"Our best pitcher," Manager Charlie Manuel said. "When he's pitching, you've always got a very good chance of winning a game."

Especially if it's an important game.

"Going out there in the big game, you want to be that guy that can dictate it," Hamels said recently. "And if you have the mind-set and the talent to do so, then you should be able to go out there and have success.

"I have the confidence that I can go out there and do it. I know I have the talent to do it. It's just a matter of time and getting the opportunity to do it."

But it's probable that Manuel wouldn't know Cole Hamels from cole slaw if the precocious pitcher hadn't run into Furtak as a high school freshman. At the time, Hamels was a rail-thin left-hander with a steely determination and a fastball that couldn't dent a loaf of bread.

So Furtak came up with a gimmick pitch for Hamels. A changeup.

After studying Greg Maddux's circle change, which he throws by gripping the ball with his index finger and thumb curled along the side of the ball, forming a circle, Furtak taught Hamels how to throw it.

"He didn't throw hard enough to get the good hitters out with his fastball. So this worked," Furtak, 42, recalled. "It wasn't in the [strike] zone like it is now. It was bouncing and it was pretty wild.

"[But] guys were swinging at it in the dirt. It had the same movement it has now. . . . Guys just couldn't pick it up."

Still can't. In less than three full seasons in the majors, Hamels has a 38-23 record with a 3.43 earned-run average and 516 strikeouts in 543 innings. This season, he ranked among the league leaders in ERA (3.09) and strikeouts (196) and was second in the NL in shutouts (two), opponents' batting average (.227) and innings pitched (227 1/3 ).

And Hamels has done it all with a left arm once broken so severely that doctors had to fuse the fractured bones to metal rods inserted in the marrow.

Hamels fractured the humerus, the bone between the elbow and shoulder, playing football in the street the summer after his sophomore season. Embarrassed, he kept the accident a secret, but when he threw a pitch in a summer league game that night, the arm snapped.

"Just getting back on the mound was a struggle," Furtak said. " . . . I remember one instance, I said, 'Hey, just go stand up on the mound. Just in the bullpen.' "

They did, standing together in silence visualizing hitters who didn't exist -- and maybe a career that had become invisible as well.

"Getting back on the mound, he was scared to do that," Furtak said.

A week later, with his junior season already gone, Hamels finally started throwing again. As a senior he had what Furtak still calls the most amazing season he has seen: 10-0, an 0.39 ERA and, in his first high school start in nearly two years, a five-inning no-hitter.

Yet, not everyone was convinced. The fact he was a high school pitcher with a recently broken arm led 16 teams to pass on him in the 2002 draft, which is how the Phillies, picking 17th, got him.

"He was an excellent, excellent high school pitcher. [But] there were some teams that eliminated him from a medical standpoint," Florida Marlins scout Orrin Freeman said. "He had the changeup there, he had a good arm, he had great mound presence."

The changeup, in fact, had more movement after the injury, movement Hamels still can't explain -- but movement he has attributed to the way his arm healed.

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