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Hammel travels long road to Opening Day start

O's righty bounces back from 'pen demotion in Colorado to become No. 1 starter

Hammel travels long road to Opening Day start

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Some of Jason Hammel's earliest baseball memories involve games of catch in the backyard with his older brother, Bill. They would play other things, including home run derby in the cul de sac out front, but their father, William, had designed and built a pitching target for the two boys, complete with a strike zone and ball retrieval bucket, and most of their sessions were spent out there, with a makeshift pitching mound.

It was a rare treat when William, who worked for and later started his own own steel erection company, got out of work early enough to play and Jason, who was about 9 years old, remembers that day well. There they were, a perfect little trio relaying the ball back and forth in Port Orchard, Wash., when William asked his sons, "What do you want to be when you are grown-ups?"

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Easy, the two young Hammels answered: Major League Baseball players.

"You'd expect your dad to be like, 'Yeah, all right, we will keep working hard on it and see what happens,'" Jason said. "But he pretty much shot it down."

The odds were against them, William explained to his sons. It was really hard to do, and they may want to consider doing something else.

"I can see it maybe as him trying to motivate us, but I can also see it now as me being like, 'I told you so,'" Hammel said of the exchange. "That's always been a motivating factor for me."

In the journey from that tall, skinny kid from Washington to the Orioles' Opening Day starter against the Rays on Tuesday at 3:10 p.m. ET, the 30-year-old Hammel has had plenty of other skeptics along the way. It makes the transition from his bullpen demotion in Colorado to Baltimore's No. 1 starter in a year-and-a-half span even more incredible.

"I had heard that he wasn't that competitive," pitching coach Rick Adair said of Hammel, who came to the O's in a trade with the Rockies on Feb. 6, 2012. "It's just the opposite. He's very competitive, he expects a lot of himself. He wants to be a guy that this club counts on. He wants that opportunity. He relishes it."

And, most importantly, Hammel now knows how to handle it.

* * * * *

It had started to snowball in Colorado the second half of 2011, that one bad inning he had always becoming two, and finally culminating in a three-inning start in which Hammel -- who had always shown flashes of brilliance -- surrendered six earned runs against the Dodgers on Aug. 19. The two months of inconsistency perplexed his teammates and the Rockies' front office, and Hammel was moved to long relief with one thing clear: if the right-hander didn't figure things out, he wasn't going to be around much longer.

It had been like that for the bulk of Hammel's pro career: he had an array of talent that hadn't translated into results. Drafted by the Rays in the 10th round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, Hammel was always a prospect but was never a top-tier one. Tampa Bay had a slew of top picks back then, and Hammel made 28 starts over three years, half of which came in '07, when he pitched to a 6.15 ERA as a starter.

"I was kind of like the guy in the shadows that was good enough, but I wasn't the guy that was going to stick there, because they had other priorities," said Hammel, who went 7-15 with a 5.90 ERA in three seasons with the Rays.

"They had guys a little further up the pecking order. I wasn't going to take that. I understand that opportunities come, and when your opportunity comes, you have to capitalize. I didn't do that for a while."

It would be another 2 1/2 years in Colorado before Hammel would understand how to do that.

* * * * *

If the 28-year-old was down about his demotion to relief, he masked it well. Instead, what Rockies bullpen coach Jim Wright found when Hammel became a member of the 'pen in late August 2011 was a guy tired of having his teeth kicked in and eager to learn. And so Wright took a fungo bat and the 6-foot-6 pitcher out to the outfield and made Hammel field. He wanted Hammel to feel how easy it was to catch and throw, how natural of a motion it was to just pick up the ball and fire it in. It was like those days with Bill in their backyard.

"He's a tough kid, he had this tremendous ability, but his thoughts were in the wrong place," Wright said of Hammel. "Once he was cognizant of it, he took it and ran with it."

After the fielding work, Wright would set up various sandbags in the bullpen, drape a glove over one and instruct Hammel to knock it off the bag. There was no catcher, no batter and no distractions; it was simply pitching to a target. By the third or fourth session, Hammel was knocking off any mitt, any location, with any pitch. He had seen the glove before, he told Wright, but never like that.

"Instead of worrying about the hitter, worrying about the umpire, worrying about the catcher, I just focused on hitting the glove," Hammel said. "It was all I was doing. As soon as I shifted my mind to thinking about whatever pitch I was throwing and hitting the glove with it, things started to shift. And it became easier for me to repeat stuff, because I wasn't thinking about all those different things."

The emphasis on simplifying and using those focal points translated almost instantly. Hammel made two spot starts for the Rockies in September, going seven innings in each outing and allowing a combined three earned runs with nine strikeouts and two walks.

"I told him I can tell the difference when a guy's thinking about just hitting the glove or not," Wright said of Hammel, who worked tirelessly, throwing bullpen sessions on days before he pitched, to get things right.

"He had the courage to take it to another level and take another step. So many guys are afraid to get out of their comfort zone."

* * * * *

Hammel took that fearlessness a step further upon being traded to Baltimore last year, working with Adair to find a delivery better suited for his body structure. The result was the re-emergence of his two-seam fastball, something Hammel had shelved in Colorado that paid immediate dividends on the mound for the Orioles.

"He's a little bow-legged, to be honest with you, and that's difficult for a pitcher to keep the ball and drive it downhill if you are bow-legged," Adair said of Hammel. "And obviously he had the [right] knee injury. He's done some good things physically to adapt to a different kind of delivery. He's had some things to overcome."

Just how much that right knee -- which Hammel had surgery on to clean out loose cartilage -- hampered him last season, Hammel won't divulge. He allowed two or fewer runs in each of his first six starts for the O's, pieced together a 17-inning scoreless stretch in June and was named a Final Vote American League All-Star candidate. But he was shut down following July's surgery -- an avenue he avoided until the pain kept him from pitching -- and rushed back in September, hobbling off the mound after 3 2/3 innings on Sept. 11. Still, Hammel posted a a 3.43 ERA in 20 regular-season starts, then made two postseason starts.

"What went on with him the last month of the [2011] season, I can only go by what I see," manager Buck Showalter said of Hammel.

"He's a good teammate, and he's not scared. The man likes to compete. Whether that's a change from the way it used to be, quite frankly, I don't really care. I just know what he is now."

Hammel has been the veteran of the Orioles' staff since the moment he arrived, with Showalter pulling him aside last spring to tell Hammel that there wasn't any need to worry -- he was going to be a guy here.

"They pretty much threw me right into the fire," Hammel said. "Everything happened real fast, I learned some things, and then I felt like I was trusted and there was confidence behind me, not just myself. So, it was awesome."

* * * * *

Jason never got to say "I told you so" to his father. William Hammel passed away in December 1999 after a massive heart attack, when Jason was in high school and being a pro athlete was still Plan A. At the time, Bill had moved back to Pittsburgh and teenage Jason was the man of the house, getting scouted and drafted on his own. He would visit Bill in the summers, and after his second year at Treasure Valley Community College, Bill noticed a little different confidence coming from his younger brother.

"He told me then, 'If I don't believe I can do this, no one else is gonna believe it either,'" Bill said. "The personality and professional baseball related adjustments he has made -- for the most part by his own efforts, from high school, to college, through each [and] every level of Minor League baseball, to 2013 Opening Day starter for the Orioles -- has been so impressive to me. And I couldn't be more proud."

This spring, Hammel -- a Dolphins fan -- has shelved the knee brace he dubbed his "Dan Marino" brace, arriving to Sarasota with the goal of being healthy enough to throw without it from Day 1. The right knee is no longer an issue and Hammel, tabbed for the first Opening Day assignment of his career, has been able to concentrate on just pitching to the glove.

Hammel still keeps in contact with Wright, mostly through text messages, and gets the occasional reminder from his former coach to just focus on that one pitch. In the O's clubhouse, Hammel is playful and easygoing, a leader more by example, and an older guy by default on such a young team.

"Six years?" Adair said, amused at the thought of Hammel being considered a wily old veteran. "A wise six years.

"He's great not only on the field with his work habits, but everybody sees the kid in him around him. He's a good kid, he likes to have fun."

There are high hopes for Hammel in 2013 and -- just like the Orioles as a whole -- there are questions as to whether he can repeat last year's success. That's fine by him.

"I love it when people say you can't do it," Hammel said. "That's a motivator. If people can't find motivation in that, then I don't really know where they find motivation. I feel like failure has made me better.

"I always want somebody I can confide in or somebody I can relate to. And I hope I'm giving that now. I never thought at 30 I'd be the old guy on the staff, but it's a role I embrace. I love it. I want to help out and be a leader. I'm sure this team has been looking for it for a while, and we got a bunch of guys stepping up now. It's a collective group that we're all pushing in the right direction. We've got the same faces here, and I would like to be a leader on this team and help us continue to keep pushing."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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