PHILADELPHIA - The Phillies made the obvious and correct choice in March when they named Cole Hamels their Opening Day starter.
He had pitched better than Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay last season, but an impressive resume also secured the first-time honor. He finished in the top 10 in National League Cy Young Award voting each of the previous two seasons. He also earned three career trips to the All-Star Game and the 2008 World Series and National League Championship Series Most Valuble Player awards.
But Hamels has looked nothing like one of the best pitchers in baseball in his first two starts in 2013. After getting battered Monday in the season-opening loss to the Braves at Turner Field, he blew a four-run lead Sunday in a 9-8 loss to the Royals at Citizens Bank Park.
Hamels is 0-2 with a 10.97 ERA.
"It's giving up runs," said Hamels, when asked what has frustrated him most. "Not giving the team the opportunity to win. When we're able to score runs early you want to keep the team in the ballgame. I wasn't able to do that.
"First and foremost, win the ballgame no matter who you're playing and who's pitching. We want to win. I wasn't able to do that for two straight games."
Hamels allowed nine hits, eight runs, four walks, one home run and struck out two in 5 2/3 innings Sunday. The eight earned runs allowed were a career worst. He has allowed 16 hits, 13 runs, five walks, four home runs and has struck out seven in just 10 2/3 innings this season.
The momentum killer Sunday came in the fifth inning when Hamels served up a grand slam to Billy Butler to give Kansas City a two-run lead.
It was the first grand slam of Butler's career. It was also the first one Hamels had allowed.
It was just another bad loss for the Phillies, who fell twice to the Royals in the three-game series in similar fashion: race to an early lead only to watch the bats fall silent while the starting pitcher blew the lead and the bullpen failed to keep the game close. It happened in Friday's 13-4 loss, when the Phillies took a 4-0 lead, but had no hits following the third inning as Kyle Kendrick blew the lead and the bullpen turned the game into a rout.
It nearly happened again Sunday as the Phillies built a 4-0 lead, only to watch Hamels blow the lead as the bullpen made a comeback a near impossibility.
The Phillies rallied in the ninth with a three-run home run from Jimmy Rollins. They scored another run and had runners on second and third with two outs, but Royals right-hander Kelvin Herrera struck out Erik Kratz in a tough nine-pitch at-bat to win the game.
"We don't take the foot off the gas," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, when asked about the team's offensive hibernation after building early leads this weekend. "What you see is baseball. Believe me, if anything we might be wanting it too bad. We don't take our foot off the gas. That's just the way it goes sometimes."
Phillies third baseman Michael Young went 4-for-5 with a double and an RBI. He believes the runs will come.
"It's something we definitely want to address, though," Young said. "I think we did a really good job against a good pitcher in the first inning [James Shields], but one thing we want to continue to get better at is making sure we keep our foot on the gas as the game goes on. That's one thing they did well during this series. They tacked on runs in those middle innings and we didn't."
Chad Durbin, who has an 11.57 ERA in three appearances, replaced Hamels with two on and two outs in the sixth, but walked Alcides Escobar to load the bases before allowing a single to Butler, who had a career-high seven RBIs, to make it 8-4.
Phillies relievers have allowed 10 of 11 inherited runners to score this year. The pitching staff has a 7.10 ERA in six games, which is the worst in baseball.
"All of us are true competitors," Hamels said of the team's poor pitching to this point. "We've all had success in the big leagues. We all expect to have success. I think we just have to bear down and go out there and do what we know we're capable of doing. We can't stress about the results as much as what people want. We have to be confident in what we can do and go out there and execute. Things will definitely take care of itself."
But it will be impossible to compete with the Nationals and Braves in the National League East with efforts like this.
The Phillies open a three-game series Monday against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park before they head to Miami to play a three-game series against the Marlins beginning Friday. Forget the tired clichés that everybody that puts on a big-league uniform has a chance to win. Managers, coaches and players have to say those things. If the Phillies expect to hang with the Nationals and Braves, they need to win series against the Mets and Marlins, whom everybody in baseball considers a distant fourth and fifth in NL East talent.
The Phillies can get on the right track with a good effort Monday from Halladay, who entered the season as the team's biggest question mark. Hamels was not supposed to be a question, but his first two starts have helped the Phillies to a 2-4 start.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.