More Sports:

June 28, 2016

Eleven months later, Cole Hamels thriving with MLB-best Rangers

NEW YORK – On the day that would end with his team landing the biggest prize of the 2015 trade deadline, Jeff Banister’s team entered play four games under .500. After the first 100 games on their schedule, the Texas Rangers were in third place. They were eight games back in the American League West standings.

Two days later, when the Cole Hamels-to-Texas trade finally became official, Banister did his own scouting report on his new starting pitcher, watching the former World Series MVP’s televised farewell press conference in Philadelphia.

“Just the pro he is, how gracious he was, and thankful to Philadelphia, the organization and the city,” Banister recalled Tuesday afternoon in the visiting manager’s office at Yankee Stadium, where Hamels would take the mound later that night.

“Yet he also talked about coming to a team of championship players, and wanting to come and be a part of (it),” Banister continued. “He didn’t talk about coming and saving anything. He came in and (just wanted) to add value.”

Eleven months since the trade went down, Hamels has held onto his end of the bargain. He is 16-2 with a 3.07 ERA in 28 starts with the Rangers.

The Rangers – again, four games under .500 and eight games out, in third place the day the trade was agreed upon – are 91-49 since July 29, 2015. That’s a .650 winning percentage (for a frame of reference, the 102-win Phillies team in 2011 had a .630 winning percentage).

“From the moment I walked in, it was just ‘game on,’” Hamels said Tuesday night, after improving to 9-1 on the season in a 7-1 win over the Yankees. “Guys were got all giddy and excited. It was pretty cool to see. Obviously, the rest if history because we’ve been playing really well. It’s been good.”

When Tuesday's game went final, the Texas Rangers (51-27) inched ahead of the Chicago Cubs for ownership of the best record in baseball.

In the 11 months since the Hamels trade was agreed upon, only the Cubs have a better record than the Rangers. Perhaps, like Banister, we all should have listened more carefully to what Cole Hamels said on the day he exited Citizens Bank Park for good last July.

“There's still a chance, and I like knowing that,” Hamels said of the Rangers on the day of his South Philly farewell. “Being a part of what this Phillies team did in 2007, we overcame seven (with only 17 games to play) and I know I can help be a part of that for the Rangers. And that's what I look to do. I'm not going to go in and solve every problem. I just want to be a part of it and do what I can.”

With Hamels aboard, the Rangers got hot last August, won 40 of the final 62 games on their schedule to climb over both the Angels and Astros and claim the AL West crown. They haven’t looked back since: Texas entered Tuesday as the first team in baseball to reach 50 wins this year.

“We’re (bleeping) nasty,” said Jake Diekman, the former Phillies reliever who arrived to the Rangers with Hamels last July.

And it’s no coincidence that Texas took off with Hamels’ arrival.

Even on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon in the clubhouse, following a night when the Rangers and Yankees endured a 3-hour, 35-minute rain delay, a night when Banister said his head didn’t hit the pillow until 5 a.m., the visiting team knew it could rest a bit because they had Hamels headed to the mound that night.

“Because he’s so confident,” Diekman said. “He was like ‘I’ll try to give you guys the day off tomorrow.’ It’s like, ‘Sweet.’ He truly feels that he can do that for nine innings.”

Hamels didn’t give the Rangers nine innings on Tuesday. He gave them seven shutout innings.

Hamels hasn’t allowed more than one run in a start since June 7, when he allowed a whopping two runs.

On Tuesday night, Hamels allowed six hits, struck out seven, and walked one. In his first trip back to the east coast this season, Hamels came away with his first career win over the Yankees.

Even if a return to Philadelphia is not on the Rangers schedule in 2016, Hamels is putting himself into position to make at least one homecoming trip this summer. Exactly two weeks from Tuesday, San Diego’s Petco Park will host the All-Star Game.

“He’s everything and more than I thought he was, as a competitor, a guy that takes care of himself, works hard. He’s obviously got the guts. … He’s a professional and goes about his business like one. He’s as good as everyone says he is.”

Hamels, drafted by the Phillies out of San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo High 14 years ago, improved to 9-1 with a 2.60 ERA this season. His ERA ranks third in the American League (and 12th in baseball).

But Hamels has been on this run for nearly a year now. Since last year’s All-Star break, Hamels 3.12 ERA is also 12th best in baseball (among pitchers with at least 170 innings).

Entering Tuesday, his 187 strikeouts ranked 15th over than span, as did his hits-per-9 innings (7.766). Following Tuesday, no pitcher in baseball has a better winning percentage than Hamels (17-2, .895) since last year’s All-Star break.

“It’s a pleasure, man,” said Rangers outfielder Ian Desmond, who squared off against Hamels for seven years as a member of the Washington Nationals before becoming teammates this spring. “He’s everything and more than I thought he was, as a competitor, a guy that takes care of himself, works hard. He’s obviously got the guts. … He’s a professional and goes about his business like one. He’s as good as everyone says he is.”

Former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel famously gave Ryan Howard the nickname “The Big Piece,” as the powerful bat in the middle of the lineup that couldn’t be replaced or replicated during his prime. The way the Rangers have responded since the trade deadline last July, Hamels might as well go by “The Last Piece” or “The Missing Link.”

With the way he and the Rangers are going, it’s not hard to envision Hamels returning to the World Series for the first time since 2009, when he watched the Yankees celebrate in the same ballpark he pitched in Tuesday night.

“On the field speaks for itself,” Banister said. “You look at the numbers, those speak for themselves. “All of the things (our) guys stand for, their non-negotiables, their standards of play and what they believe in, all of those things kind of fell in line. And when he got here, and I remember listening to the first press conference, saying the exact same things.

“With his leadership ability and not only out on the field but in the clubhouse, how he works, his routine. All of those ingredients and factors helped a group of guys, (he was) kind of that last little piece if you will that fit into the puzzle for these guys, that they needed. They needed that little extra. He was capable of providing that not only out on the field but in the clubhouse.”

Banister, the reigning American League manager of the year, is obviously thrilled with having Hamels atop a rotation that currently has three starters (including Yu Darvish) on the disabled list. Hamels has carried the load, and then some.

But the feeling is mutual from Hamels perspective. A year after enduring nonstop trade rumors and the drama of being on a team careening toward the worst record in baseball, the 32-year-old Hamels is in a winning environment again, just like the good old days he grew up in as a young pitcher in the Phillies rotation.

“Getting an opportunity to win boosts your energy every day,” Hamels said. “At the same time, with the type of talent and how we play a game and there’s no selfishness in this clubhouse, it helps you to relax. It allows you to be the part you need to be to help this team be efficient.

“You don’t see guys overdoing it. They are playing their game and guys are getting confidence from each other to do so. It’s different than what I experienced. At the same time, the energy is unbelievable. And that obviously comes from winning.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21