BALTIMORE — The last time we saw Orioles starting pitcher Jason Hammel on the mound at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, he was limping off the field with severe disappointment after reinjuring his right knee in his second start back from surgery.
He’ll now take the mound Sunday night in Baltimore’s first home playoff game in 15 years as the Orioles welcome the New York Yankees to town for Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
So, did Hammel ever expect to find himself in this position after hurting his knee again nearly a month ago?
“Honestly, no,” he said. “At that point, I was very disappointed with the way it felt. It was exactly the same feeling. We were a lot slower moving it along this time, very careful with it. … I’m confident that the knee will not be an issue.”
Following that outing on Sept. 11, it appeared all but certain the Orioles’ best pitcher in the first half of the season had thrown his last pitch of the 2012 season. Hammel took his time working his way back into shape, explaining how doctors and the training staff directed him to take an extra week after feeling he was 100 percent again.
After throwing a simulated game in Florida on Monday and a bullpen session Friday in Arlington, Hammel was tabbed the starter in the series opener by manager Buck Showalter just a few minutes before meeting with the media prior to Saturday’s Division Series workout at Camden Yards. He’ll sport a bulky brace on his right knee, but Hammel said it doesn’t restrict his movement despite resembling one a football player might wear.
Hammel wasn’t afforded an opportunity to pitch in a major league game since tweaking his right knee early last month, but the Orioles have expressed supreme confidence in him based on his ability to keep his arm strong while being sidelined after undergoing knee surgery in mid-July. He finished the regular season with an 8-6 mark and a 3.43 earned run average in 20 starts.
The 30-year-old now pitches in one of the biggest games of his career after only making three starts since the All-Star break, with two of those being cut short due to injury. Showalter believes Hammel has finally reached a level of confidence in which he won’t be thinking about the knee and will be focused on a much bigger test Sunday.
“It’s as much mentally, knowing [his health] shouldn’t be a challenge for him,” said Showalter, who confirmed Hammel will not be on a restricted pitch count. “The challenge will be the Yankees, and they’ll let him know how he’s pitching. We’re excited about getting ‘Hamm’ back.”
The Orioles are expressing confidence in Hammel that he will resemble the pitcher they saw in the first half of the season, which landed him on the “Final Vote” list for the 2012 All-Star Game.
Hammel carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of his first start with the Orioles on April 8 and pitched a one-hit shutout on June 16 against the Atlanta Braves. The right-hander thrived in the first half of the season despite dealing with a loose piece of cartilage in his right knee that eventually forced him to have the surgical procedure.
Now deeming himself fully healthy, Hammel is hoping to recapture the magic he enjoyed early on that made everyone forget about the unpopular reaction to the Jeremy Guthrie trade that brought the former Colorado Rockies pitcher to Baltimore in early February. But it won’t be easy against the Yankees, who Hammel held to seven earned runs in 16 innings covering three starts this season.
“Jason’s a competitor,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “When he had his time off and came back for his last start, his stuff was right there and his competitive spirit was there until he did have the setback. I know the knee feels good and when he gets out there, that competitive spirit’s going to get going and he’s going to be fine.”
It’s that same competitive spirit employed by the Orioles all season on their way to a 93-69 regular season and a win over the Texas Rangers in the first ever AL Wild Card game.
And much like a plethora of other moves and decisions made by Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, the choice to start Hammel appears unconventional and risky, given the infrequent work he’s received since early July.
“Obviously, I want to be a part of this,” Hammel said. “The guys have done an outstanding job of getting us to this point. I’ve only pitched for half of the season. It shows a lot of dedication from a lot of guys to go ahead and put me out there since I haven’t pitched in a long time. But, I’m a professional and I take care of what I need to do to get ready.
“We’re ready to go.”