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TIMORE -- Barely a month ago, Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel didn't think this scenario was possible. And perhaps in a season full of his team defying odds, that is exactly why the 30-year-old Hammel was tabbed by manager Buck Showalter to start Sunday's 6 p.m. ET Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees on TBS, his first start since aggravating a right knee injury 3 1/2 weeks ago.
"First and foremost, I want to thank Buck for having the confidence in putting me back out there in such an important situation," said Hammel, who last pitched on Sept. 11, a start he exited after 3 2/3 innings with knee discomfort. "The simulated game obviously in Sarasota [on Monday] went well, but then I had another 'pen in Texas yesterday, and that was outstanding. Basically, I was able to work on things instead of just get through it healthy, so I felt very strong. So we're in a good place."
Key stat: 5.84 ERA in six playoff starts the past two seasons.
Key stat: Two starts since July 13 and none since Sept. 11.
At Camden Yards
2012: 3 GS, 0-2, 6.38 ERA
Career: 15 GS, 10-3, 3.38 ERA
2012: 10 GS, 4-2, 3.44 ERA
Career: 13 GS, 4-4, 4.02 ERA
Against this opponent
2012: 3 GS, 0-2, 6.38 ERA
Career: 25 GS, 16-4, 3.12 ERA
2012: 3 GS, 0-1, 3.94 ERA Career: 8 GS, 1-3, 6.20 ERA
Loves to face: Matt Wieters, 5-for-24, 1 HR, 8 K Hates to face: Adam Jones, 14-for-41, 3 HR, 10 RBIs
Loves to face: Russell Martin, 1-for-9, 2 K Hates to face: Alex Rodriguez, 8-for-22, 4 HR, 9 RBIs
Why he'll win: Went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 28 strikeouts in 24 IP over last three starts.
Why he'll win: Was the Orioles' best pitcher for much of the season.
Pitcher beware: Gave up at least four earned runs in all three of his starts at Baltimore; Yankees went 1-2 in those games.
Pitcher beware: Has been battling right knee problems that have kept him sidelined for most of the past three months.
Bottom line: Pitch like an ace.
Bottom line: Solid if healthy.
Hammel admitted on Saturday that when he exited his last start, he was skeptical about returning this season. The discomfort was no different than before he underwent knee surgery, a procedure that kept him out for nearly two months and halted what had been a career year.
After an MRI exam on Hammel's knee revealed no new damage, the team was more cautious in bringing him back, waiting another week after Monday's simulated game to give a start to the veteran, who has posted a 3.43 ERA in 20 outings.
"We had a lot of different variables, but we felt like all along, we didn't try to push that and stayed with the process of getting him ready," said Showalter, whose club is facing a potentially wet Game 1, with consistent rain in the forecast.
"He's not so far removed. ... I think as much mentally knowing all that shouldn't be a challenge for him. The challenge is going to be the Yankees, and they'll let us know how he's pitching. We're excited about the possibility of getting him back."
Showalter, who didn't want to disturb the sleeping Hammel on club's plane ride home from Texas on Friday night, said he watched the right-hander celebrate on the mound with teammates and thought he looked pretty good physically, jumping around on his knee.
"I think the lobbying was me getting back into shape," said Hammel, who will pitch with what he calls his "Dan Marino brace" to help keep his knee in place.
"I wasn't trying to force a hand or anything. Obviously I want to be a part of this. The guys have done an outstanding job to get us to this point, and I've only pitched for half the season. That shows a lot of dedication from a lot of guys to go ahead and me put out there.
"I haven't pitched in a long time, but I'm a professional, I take care of what I need to do to get ready, and so do the other guys in that clubhouse. We're going to be ready to go."
Unless, of course, the rain washes out Sunday's game. That would push Game 1 back to Monday and eliminate Tuesday's travel day all together.
Rain or shine, Hammel's teammates have his back.
"He's been one of our most consistent pitchers all year, even with his knee flare-ups here and there," first baseman Mark Reynolds said of Hammel, who was an AL Final Vote candidate for the All-Star Game. "But even the game where his knee hurt him, he was pitching real well. I think he pitched in the instructional league down in Florida and I think his knee felt great, so we're real confident with him going out there."
Acquired in a trade from Colorado last offseason, Hammel has made it clear that he's no longer the tentative pitcher he used to be. He worked this spring with pitching coach Rick Adair to once again institute a two-seamer he shelved while at hitter-friendly Coors Field, and that led the righty to post a 1.97 ERA his first five starts with the Orioles.
Hammel is 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA in three games against the Yankees this year, having most recently faced them on Sept. 6, when he tossed five innings of one-run ball in his first start off the disabled list.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not put on a [pitch] limit," Hammel said. "You'd have to go to Buck about that. But my last two sessions have been 75 pitches, I threw 80 before that and then just yesterday, I threw probably 45, 50 at full capacity. I wasn't holding back.
"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."
Added catcher Matt Wieters: "I've got a pretty good idea of what kind of competitor Jason is, and when he came back from his last knee problem, before he had a little bit of a setback, his stuff was back right where it was when he was healthy.
"That's the big thing. He's got great stuff and able to mix in four pitches -- that's why he's going to be successful."