CLEARWATER, Fla. — The first pitch of Phillies spring training was reserved for Cole Hamels, a luxury bestowed to the franchise's highest-paid player and cornerstone. But when Roberto Hernandez christened the exhibition season at Bright House Field at 1:08 p.m. Thursday with a fastball, Hamels relaxed. He had passed an important test five hours earlier.
There was no pomp and circumstance for Hamels' first bullpen session Thursday morning. The team and its pitcher brimmed with optimism. Hamels, sidelined in November with biceps tendinitis in his left shoulder, expects to start a Grapefruit League game within two weeks. Bob McClure, his pitching coach, proclaimed Hamels "100 percent healthy" and predicted his ace would not miss more than two regular-season starts.
Two weeks ago, Hamels eliminated the possibility of pitching opening day. McClure is in agreement.
"He could probably do it because of the way he's throwing now," McClure said, "but let's not push it."
Hamels plans to throw two more bullpen sessions, then two live batting practices. He said four spring starts will adequately prepare him for the season.
The Phillies do not need a fifth starter until their ninth game, April 10 at Citizens Bank Park against Milwaukee, thanks to scheduled days off. Hamels could conceivably make his season debut then - if not before.
"I feel like I'm in a really good position to progress and get into the schedule like everybody else did a couple of weeks ago," Hamels said.
The Phillies were never overly concerned with Hamels and dissuaded him from announcing his injury to reporters on the day pitchers and catchers reported to camp. He informed Phillies athletic trainers in late November about the injury, and they suspended his throwing program.
That, Hamels said, made all the difference.
"I am able to be in a better position probably than I thought I would be when this first came up," Hamels said. "We hit it at the right time. We really got after it right away. I didn't let it linger. Some guys wait until spring training to let people know what happened in the offseason. I really didn't want that to happen."
When Hamels arrived at camp, he was some two weeks behind his teammates' schedule. McClure estimated Hamels is now 10 days behind, but said it could be less than that. He noted some players require a lengthier spring than others.
"He doesn't look like he needs longer, but I don't want to rush him," McClure said. "To be conservative, I would say two weeks. To be not conservative, I'd say five to seven days into the season."
Hamels has made at least five starts in each of the last four springs. The fourth outing is most important, and Hamels does not anticipate requiring more.
"That's when I know, the fourth start, I know I'm ready to hit that next gear," Hamels said.
The team's conservatism could have something to do with Hamels' career 5.11 ERA in his first two April starts. The 30-year-old's $144 million left arm is nothing to risk, especially in April. The Phillies will be thrilled if Hamels makes 31 starts for them.
A quick start, however, is paramount for this team. Their starting depth is thin. Jonathan Pettibone remains sidelined with a shoulder ailment. Miguel Gonzalez has not yet impressed team officials. Those factors could accelerate Hamels' return.
"Where I am and what I'm doing, I'm just slowly behind these guys," Hamels said. "But I feel like I can make some strong strides once I really get into the bullpens. Once I get into that first game, I think I'll really know where I'm at."