Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel had waited nearly a month to pitch in a game. It had been almost three years since he had last started in the postseason.
Sunday's outing may not have been exactly as Hammel would have scripted it, but for the Orioles, it was worth the wait.
The lanky right-hander did his job in the 7-2 loss, holding the New York Yankees to two runs in 5 2/3 innings and leaving with the scored tied 2-2 in the Orioles' first playoff game at Camden Yards in 15 years.
As he exited, Hammel received a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 47,841, the largest here in 2012.
“Jason was great," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We matched [Yankees ace CC Sabathia]. As good as Sabathia was, Jason matched him. … That's probably the difference in that ballgame was Jason pitching real well, and I was real proud of him and everybody defensively that kept us in the game. Got away from us a little bit there at the end, though.”
In his last start at Camden Yards, Hammel came off the mound hobbling, re-injuring his right knee in the fourth inning on Sept. 11.
He had had arthroscopic surgery to remove cartilage on the same knee in July and had battled back to pitch again in less than two months. So when he stood by his locker that night, Hammel was distraught, fearing that his season was over and that he wouldn't be part of the club's postseason run.
"At that point I was very disappointed with the way it felt. … It was exactly the same feeling," Hammel said Saturday. "We were a lot slower moving it along this time, very careful with it, and I did feel pretty good about a week ago. And I was actually told before, when it feels good, give it another week because it may feel fully healed, but it's not. We did that this time."
Hammel had been the club's best pitcher in the first part of the year, going 8-5 with a 3.47 ERA in 17 starts.
But he made just three starts in the second half — and the rust showed early Sunday. After a rain delay of nearly two and a half hours, Hammel began the game by giving up a single to Derek Jeter and a RBI double to Ichiro Suzuki.
Two batters into the game, Hammel was down 1-0. Suzuki then tried to steal third and was thrown out by catcher Matt Wieters. And that seemed to calm Hammel. He retired eight of the next nine before the Yankees scored their second run on Mark Teixeira's RBI single in the fourth.
Overall, Hammel kept the damage minimized, allowing two runs on four hits and four walks (one intentional) while striking out five.
"It took me about into the third inning until I felt strong and my timing was there," Hammel said after the game. "I felt like I was me again. The knee felt great. I was really happy about that. And as I got stronger, the command was better and the feel was a lot better too."
It was a much better outing than his lone previous playoff game, when he allowed four runs in 3 2/3 innings for the Colorado Rockies against the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009.
"I got the first one out of the way is really the way I look at it. Honestly, in that game I didn't pitch too bad. … But it was a learning experience," Hammel said about 2009. "Obviously, you've got to learn how to control the nerves. I've done really well with that here."
Hammel, whom the Orioles acquired in February as part of the Jeremy Guthrie deal, has done pretty much everything well for the club this season. He was supposed to be an innings eater when he arrived in that trade, and emerged as so much more.
Now he can add a solid postseason start to his resume.
It was one out shy of an official quality start (six or more innings, three runs or fewer), but it was probably more than the Orioles could have expected given the long layoff and the high-pressure situation.
Hammel, however, always expects a lot of himself and he's grown to expect a lot from this surprising team as well. And he made that clear after Sunday's game that he still likes the Orioles' chances.
"It’s a five game series. This is one loss," he said. "You can’t look at it as ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in trouble now.’ It’s just one loss. We’re lucky we can come back and play again for our fans tomorrow. It’s just going to be another game. We obviously wanted to get off to the right start, but it is what it is. We played a good game tonight and we’ll come out tomorrow ready."
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