When Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel hobbled off the mound at Camden Yards in the fourth inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 11, he didn't think he'd be able to help the O's for a possible postseason run.
The stabbing pain in his right knee felt the same as the one he felt in mid-July, which prompted arthroscopic surgery to remove loose cartilage fragments from the knee, costing Hammel an eight-week stretch of the season.
"At that point I was very disappointed with the way it felt," Hammel said. "It was exactly the same feeling.
But an MRI showed no structural damage, and the best remedy was deemed to rest. Hammel worked steadily, determined to help the Orioles late in the season, and now manager Buck Showalter will hand him the ball to start Sunday's American League Division Series Game 1 against the New York Yankees, the first playoff game at Camden Yards in 15 years.
"Oh, he's been chomping at the bit," Showalter said. "It's been tough on him because he's been such a big contributor for us. … He was happy for a lot of different reasons last night. I talked to him about starting tomorrow, and it was kind of like, 'Okay, was there anything else we were going to do? Did I have any competition?"
Showalter has tentatively scheduled rookie left-hander Wei-Yin Chen for Monday's Game 2 and rookie right-hander Miguel Gonzalez for Wednesday's Game 3 at Yankee Stadium.
Hammel (8-6, 3.43 ERA) hasn't started a big league game in almost a full month, but the Orioles are convinced he's ready. He threw 73 pitches in an instructional league simulated game Monday in Sarasota, Fla., and threw a 45-50 pitch bullpen session in Texas before the Orioles' 5-1 wild-card game win over the Rangers.
"Honestly I'm just looking at tomorrow," Hammel said. "That's one game. Obviously I did some things well earlier this year and then the injuries happened. I can't do anything about it, can't control that. I know that there was a lot of effort from a lot of other guys to get us to this point, and I take that very seriously.
"This is a big story," Hammel added. "This is a big opportunity for a lot of guys. I'm not focusing on what I've done or what I need to do, it's more or less go out there and just continue to do what we as a group as the Orioles have been doing all year."
Hammel will pitch with a bulky brace on his right knee. He said it's similar to a brace that quarterbacks wear, so he had to get adjusted to the weight and trusting it, but now he said his knee feels as good as it's going to until he can rest it in the offseason.
"It's not very restrictive at all," Hammel said of the brace. "It's basically the same brace I was wearing earlier in the year when I had the fluid, with the steel bars on the side of it — I guess, just a little more support than just the Neoprene sleeve. It's a little bit bulky. I do look like a quarterback when I wear it. It's taking up all my pants. But other than that, I don't really know it's there".
Hammel was one of the Orioles' best early season success stories. He had a career 34-45 record and 4.99 ERA when he was traded to the Orioles in February, along with since departed right-hander Matt Lindstrom, for right-hander Jeremy Guthrie.
Hammel won eight of his first 10 starts as an Oriole and gave his new team some of its most dominating pitching performances of the first half.
In his Orioles debut, Hammel took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and beat the Minnesota Twins, 3-1. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of a complete-game shutout in Atlanta on June 16. In his next start, he tied a season high with 10 strikeouts in a 2-1 win over the Washington Nationals, allowing just one unearned run over eight innings.
"While Hammel was healthy, he was our ace," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. "There really wasn't any quesiton about it. It's nice to be able to get him back to Game 1 of the Division Series. When he came back last time, it was unfortunate that he had that setback, but he was throwing the ball great before he hurt his knee again.
"He says he feels great again and I expect his stuff to be there with his competitive spirit, he gives us a great chance. That's what makes guys want to play behind him."
In his return from that eightweek stint on the disabled list, Hammel held the Yankees to one run on six hits over five innings in a 10-6 win at Camden Yards, a game in which he was held to a pitch limit.
With much more on the line, he expects Showalter to let him go all out.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not put on a limit," Hammel said. "I wasn't told anything about that. I'm not going to go out there tentative. If you're expecting me to just try and feel my way through it, that's not going to happen. I feel good. I'm ready to go."