PHILADELPHIA -- Cole Hamels was a shy kid growing up in San Diego -- skinny, undersized and content to hang in the background with his buddies. The main exception was the pitcher's mound, where he asserted himself at an early age and embraced the showman within.
"I've always wanted to impress people since I was 9 or 10 years old,'' Hamels said. "When you're in Little League, your mom and dad and grandparents are there and you want to show them what you're all about. Then it's scouts -- or girls. I guess that's the masculine thing, to want to impress people. But I've learned to use it in a good way.''
Hamels is now 23 and in his second season with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the list of admirers keeps growing. It consists of teenage girls, their little brothers and dads, scouts and front-office executives, teammates and local newspaper columnists. Even Howard Eskin at WIP radio has a hard time finding fault with him.
The man upstairs is equally impressed -- and we're not talking about Philadelphia general manager Pat Gillick.
"Every night, when Cole Hamels kneels beside his bed and says his prayers, he's interrupted by God, who breaks in and thanks himself for creating Cole Hamels,'' Phillies starter Adam Eaton said, with only a trace of a smile.
The list finally winds its way to opposing hitters, who are enhancing Hamels' reputation in the most elementary way -- by striking out in droves.
Hamels, 6-1 with a 3.30 ERA, ranks third in the major leagues in strikeouts behind Baltimore's Erik Bedard and San Diego's Jake Peavy, and his 4.12-to-1 strikeout-walk ratio puts him a fraction behind two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana of the Twins.
In 32 major league starts, Hamels has 215 strikeouts. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the most by a lefty in his first 32 starts since Vida Blue whiffed 232 batters for Oakland from 1969 through 1971.
Hamels' last outing, a 6-2 win over the Brewers on Wednesday, was impressive even by his standards. He struck out Milwaukee's Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder and Billy Hall to start the game, and carried a perfect game into the seventh inning. A Weeks walk and a Hardy home run gave the 42,713 fans at Citizens Bank Park an excuse to finally relax and enjoy their Ryan Howard bobblehead dolls.
As Hamels prepares to follow up that effort Tuesday night in Florida, the Milwaukee hitters can offer the Marlins some free advice: Don't bother sitting on the changeup, because it's a chore to hit, even if you know it's coming.
Brewers third baseman Craig Counsell, who was fortunate enough to be a spectator Wednesday, listened to a bunch of dour reports from teammates returning to the dugout.
"Guys were saying the deception on that pitch is just different,'' Counsell said. "It feels like you see it forever, and it never gets there.''
The Brewers were complimentary of Hamels after his victory. On the bus ride back to the hotel, Weeks told reliever Matt Wise that Hamels' arm speed on his fastball and changeup were indistinguishable. Milwaukee pitching coach Mike Maddux was more impressed with Hamels' high baseball IQ. He's seen enough radar-obsessed youths in recent years to have an appreciation for a young pitcher with guile.
"It's a difficult task to try to get young guys to throw changeups, because their whole amateur career is spent staring at the scout with the gun,'' Maddux said. "For a young guy to have a good changeup, that's an aptitude right there. It's pitchability.''
In some respects, Hamels is a walking contradiction. He goes by the nicknames "King Cole'' and "Hollywood" (courtesy of Howard), but he's not the least bit affected by his success. At 6-foot-3 and an alleged 190 pounds, he looks like a human swizzle stick. But he's such a power nosher, some of his teammates refer to him as "Snacks.''
And that laid-back, Southern California demeanor conceals a true competitive instinct. Hamels used every bit of it to recover from a broken arm in high school and a back injury in the minor leagues.
"You can see confidence coming out of the guy,'' Phillies catcher Rod Barajas said. "He's on the mound and he's under control and he always knows what he wants to do. You never see any fear in him.''
It's now common knowledge that Hamels developed an appreciation for the changeup watching Trevor Hoffman close games in San Diego. He didn't attend many Padres games as a youth, but would routinely come home from baseball practice, eat dinner, finish his homework, then take a seat in front of the TV and watch Hoffman fluster hitters in 80 mph increments.
Hoffman's example planted the seed, but Hamels embraced the changeup for a more utilitarian reason. At Rancho Bernardo High, the powerhouse school that produced first-round Tigers draft pick Matt Wheatland in 2000, he needed an edge just to be competitive.
For a young guy to have a good changeup, that's an aptitude right there. It's pitchability.
-- Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux, on Cole Hamels
Pitching coach Mark Furtak taught him a circle change grip, and Hamels initially threw most of them in the dirt. But he stuck with the pitch, nurtured it and mastered it to the point that it became an extension of his hand.
Hamels can immediately tell in the bullpen when he's got a good one working. "It just rolls off my fingers,'' he said. And when he recently threw a substandard changeup to Chipper Jones that had "gopher ball'' written all over it, he silently cursed himself before it was halfway to the plate.
From a hitter's vantage point, Hamels is a perfect storm of despair. His lanky, angular physique gives him natural deception, and he contributes to the air of mystery by concealing the ball behind his glove during his motion. He's consistently at 90 to 92 mph with his fastball and will throw the change anywhere from 79 to 83. The slower version is meant to induce strikeouts, while the faster one typically coaxes ground balls.
"You can't teach that kind of changeup,'' Barajas said. "If you did, you'd have 20 or 30 guys in the league throwing it. For some reason it comes out of his hand naturally.''
The scary part is, Hamels is a self-improvement buff at heart. As if Barry Zito's $126 million contract weren't enough of an endorsement for left-handed curveballs, Hamels watched Ted Lilly and Rich Hill of the Cubs use the pitch as a weapon in a recent series in Philly. Refining the curve ranks high on his to-do list.
From his firsthand contact with Father Time -- also known as Jamie Moyer -- Hamels also knows the value of upsetting a hitter's timing. He realizes that lineups will adapt eventually, and he wants to be ready.
"If I can add another pitch, instead of the hitter having to guess 50-50, it's now 33 percent that I'll throw a fastball, change or curve,'' Hamels said. "That just helps out my case.''
Hamels outlasted Gavin Floyd, who was considered the Phillies' ace of the future before flopping with the big club and leaving town in a trade with the White Sox. Now that Brett Myers has assumed the closer's role in Philadelphia, Hamel bears the official seal of No. 1 guy in the rotation.
Life is certainly going smoothly off the field. During the offseason Hamels married Heidi Strobel, a former "Survivor'' contestant and Playboy cover model. They met several years ago when she was signing autographs in Florida and he worked up the chutzpah to ask her for a date.
Heidi is working toward a doctorate degree in international education from West Chester University outside Philadelphia, and her husband has joined King Felix Hernandez of Seattle on baseball's budding royalty list.
"We're going to have some pretty phenomenal kids,'' Hamels said.
Even God must be impressed.