AP Sports Writer
CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) -- That scruffy beard Cole Hamels has been sporting this spring training will be gone by the time the Philadelphia Phillies open the regular season.
Hamels plans to look his best for his first career opening-day start.
"It's too itchy," Hamels said with a laugh.
Hamels has a different look right now, but the lanky lefty is the same, dominant pitcher on the mound. When the Phillies face the Atlanta Braves on April 1, he'll take the ball over Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
"It's something I will cherish and to be able to get your team off to the right start, that's ultimately what it is, it sets the tone for the whole season," Hamels said. "You work toward it, you get in the best possible shape, prepare for the game and then you go out and execute. It's something I'll be able to remember for a really long time. At the same time, it's going to be a great season. I really look forward to the season."
Hamels already has a World Series ring, a pair of postseason MVP trophies and a lucrative contract. He's gone from ace of a championship team to being the No. 4 starter in a star-filled rotation and now back to No. 1. Even before Halladay and Lee joined the Phillies, Brett Myers got the nod over Hamels for opening day. Now it's finally his chance.
Hamels is coming off his best all-around season. He set career-highs in wins (17) and strikeouts (216), compiled a 3.05 ERA and made his third All-Star team. While Halladay (11-8, 4.49) was plagued by injuries and Lee (6-9, 3.16) suffered from poor run support, Hamels became the team's most reliable pitcher. Just a year earlier, he was behind Halladay, Lee and Roy Oswalt on the depth chart.
"It's something you don't really want to get hyped up about it because there's so much work to be done in spring training," Hamels said. "They've let us get our work in without the distraction, which is a good thing. When they made the announcement, it's nice to be honored by the team, the organization and obviously the starting pitchers. Whenever you are able to lead them into battle, you want to do your best and set the tone for what the season is going to be like."
The 29-year-old Hamels enters his eighth season with the Phillies with a peace of mind he's never had in previous camps. He doesn't have questions about his long-term future because he signed a $144 million, six-year contract last July, giving up a chance to get even more money in free agency.
Hamels was selected by the Phillies with the 17th overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft and hopes to wear red pinstripes his entire career. He enjoys the city and its fans. That's why he had no problem signing the deal just a few months before he could' have hit the open market.
"Comfort is everything," Hamels said. "Where you're comfortable you're able to be happy, you're able to play at the best level you can and this is where I'm comfortable. I know this organization really well. I look forward to seeing the players they draft every year come up because I know they're going to make a difference because they've done a phenomenal job (in past drafts).
"You want to be there to witness it and still be around when a new core comes up. And, when the fans are coming to games and we're selling out games, there's an excitement level to go on the field every day and you see they're wearing Philly red and they're following you to road games, that's why we play baseball and that ups our game even more."
Hamels was the main reason the Phillies won the second title in franchise history in 2008. He was MVP of the World Series and NL championship series, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five postseason starts.
But he regressed the following year and even got passed up as the No. 2 pitcher behind Lee in the World Series against the New York Yankees. Pedro Martinez started twice while Hamels only got one start in a series the Phillies lost in six games.
Hamels, though, got back on track in 2010. Over the past three seasons, he's 43-26 with a 2.97 ERA. Personal goals aside, Hamels' main priority is winning another ring.
"This is something we want to do," he said. "We want to win 173 games and that's what we're going to play for."
Hamels continued getting ready for the opener with a minor league start on Saturday, allowing four runs and six hits in five innings. Hamels expects to make two more exhibition starts and plans to try to reach 100 pitches his next time out.
"It's a little stressful to do it the first time in the season," he said. "It's a lot easier transition to do it here first."
Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobMaaddi
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.