ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Before Jason Hammel could become an Opening Day starter, he had to revisit his simpler days of pitching. Before the crowds, before the expectations, before worrying about his career and where he fit in, he needed to go back to the time when the game was free of distractions, when baseball wasn't much more complicated that throwing a ball through a tire in his backyard as a kid.
The 30-year-old right-hander will start the Orioles' regular-season opener Tuesday afternoon against a Tampa Bay organization that drafted him. But before he could earn that honor, Hammel had to undergo a mental transformation that began after he was demoted to the Colorado Rockies' bullpen late in the 2011 season.
It was there, under the tutelage of Rockies bullpen coach Jim Wright, that Hammel started to figure out how to reach the untapped potential that led to him becoming the Orioles' ace last season.
"The cards were on the table," Hammel said of being demoted in mid-August of 2011. "They said this was going to be a test for [me]. It wasn't that they totally told me flat out that they were moving in another direction, but that's the way I took it. It's an eye-opener. It's a slap in the face."
Taken in the 10th round of the 2002 draft, Hammel was never a centerpiece of the Rays' pitching-rich farm system. While pitchers like James Shields and Tuesday's starter David Price reached their potential, Hammel was stuck in neutral. He was traded to Colorado after the 2008 season and had back-to-back 10-win seasons. But by Mid-August of 2011, Hammel battled with his control, and his ERA had ballooned to 5.24. He lost his starting job and found himself face-to-face with frustration.
Hammel's first conversation with Wright, now the pitching coach in Colorado, lasted more than three hours, Wright offered a dose of directness. He addressed whispers that Hammel was soft. He then took a binder of scouting reports for the Rockies' opponent that night and literally tossed it in the trash can.
"I told him, 'This book is not for you,'" Wright said. "Having all this knowledge of how you're supposed to work a hitter in different sequences for each guy is for guys where command is a given. It has to be a given, or else all this information is going to frustrate you. You know what you're supposed to do, but you can't do it and you don't understand why.
"I couldn't wait to work with him because I knew this kid had tremendous talent and something was blocking it. His confidence was waning, and that happens when you get your teeth knocked out a bit. It's tough to go out with confidence every time. I just tried to get him to tell me what he was thinking on the mound."
Both Hammel and Wright agreed that Hammel's struggles were mental, that he was growing too concerned about factors of the game that he couldn't control. Wright broke it down for Hammel, telling him there were only two things he could control about pitching: the type of pitch he threw and where he threw it. He couldn't control whether the batter hit the ball or if the fielders behind him caught it.
So, Wright brought Hammel into an empty bullpen and stacked sandbags behind home plate, lodging a catcher's mitt into the bags where he wanted him to throw. He never talked about mechanics, only the simplicity of throwing to the mitt.
Hammel caught on quickly. Results followed. After Hammel was moved to the bullpen, he compiled a 1.48 ERA over the season's final weeks, including two quality spot starts.
"I was worried about what not to do and what might happen instead of what I wanted to do and [letting] it happen," Hammel said. "It was a complete 180. It was basically seeing the glove and not worrying about the number on the guy's back or what the umpire was doing out there or who the catcher was. It was seeing what was called and then seeing where the glove was and then throwing it to the glove. That's all it was. There was no other adjustment. It's amazing that it was such a simple thing that completely changed me."
When the Orioles acquired Hammel in February of 2012 in the deal that sent popular right-hander Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado, executive vice president Dan Duquette lauded Hammel as an innings eater who had the potential to anchor a young pitching staff.
Hammel won eight of his first 10 decisions with the Orioles. He took a no-hitter to the eighth inning in his Baltimore debut, threw six-plus no-hit innings in a complete-game shutout in Atlanta on June 16 and held the Nationals to one run over eight innings with 10 strikeouts in his next start.
"You could tell he just wanted to feel that confidence behind him," said Hammel's wife, Elissa. "It was never really fully there until we came to the Orioles. I noticed it right off the bat. As soon as we got here, it was like, 'Here you go, here's the ball and he was expected to be professional. I think he wanted that all along.
"That was probably the biggest blessing in disguise," she said. "We weren't expecting to be traded, but I truly believe when it happened that it was one of the best things that could have happened to him in his career."
Hammel's season was slowed when he needed arthroscopic surgery to remove loose cartilage in his right knee following his first start after the All-Star break. He missed more than six weeks, then re-aggravated the injury in his second start back Sept. 11 against the Rays.
Hammel returned for the American League Division Series, starting Games 1 and 5 and allowing just two runs over 5 2/3 innings each time. He had pitched in the playoffs before — the Rockies made the postseason in 2009 — but being an anchor of the Orioles rotation against the New York Yankees was the best week of his career, he said.
"It was awesome," Hammel said, "the idea that they wanted to go to me over other guys who were having success and were healthy, the ballclub giving me confidence that they trusted me to give them a chance to win. It was incredible going toe-to-toe with the Yankees and having a chance to win every single one of those ballgames, being a part of that and having those guys push me out there and say we want you out there, you're a part of why we got there and we think you can still get us further."
Now, Hammel will pitch on Opening Day against the organization that couldn't find room for him. He's a much different pitcher than when he left — older, stronger and more confident.
"I'm not caught up in results anymore, but I'm actually doing what I think I can do," he said. "It was a huge confidence booster to see that I had found a solution or a method to get the best out of myself. Even when I got hurt, I was still able to produce. ... Now that I'm healthy, I really feel that I can get even better."