It’s Hammel time tonight in New York

Right-hander Jason Hammel hasn’t even been an Oriole for three months yet. But after coming to the club in the February trade of Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado, he is off to a great start with the Birds with a record of 3-0 and ERA of 1.73 over his first four starts. He currently ranks third in the American League in ERA.

“It’s been a lot of fun, that sums it all up. Just trying to get off to a good start,” he said Sunday in the Orioles clubhouse.

After going 7-13 with an ERA of 4.76 in 170 innings with the Rockies in 2011, Hammel has allowed two earned runs or less in each of his O’s starts and is coming off an outing where he pitched seven shutout innings against Toronto.

Hammel will be on the mound tonight when the Orioles begin a series at Yankee Stadium.

Hammel has said several times this year that the strong finish he had last season with the Rockies, when he pitched to an ERA of 1.80 in September, has carried over for him. He said he gained confidence and mental toughness late last year.

“I always take it back to the last month of last year,” Hammel said. “I am trying to build on what I was doing there. Working hard with the mental aspect of the game and continuing to hold my focus on what it’s been. I come out as a different pitcher with a different demeanor on the mound.

“It was just a change of focus. Focusing on the glove instead of the what ifs. Just coming out, being confident and throwing all my pitches with conviction.”

He has sure been doing that, showing a fastball in the 93 mph range and an impressive two-seamer that has helped him post a 2.13 ground-to-air ratio this year, easily topping his figure of 1.12 last season.

“I had used it (the two-seam fastball) before, but never with success. I was trying to manipulate it too much. I did it in Denver and I wasn’t able to use it. Then I made small adjustments in spring training and (pitching coach) Rick (Adair) said, ‘I bet I can get you to throw a two-seamer again.’ So obviously, I am open to it. Any extra weapons are helpful,” Hammel said.

“We started throwing it on the side and I took it into a game. I think the first time I used it was against the Yankees in spring training. It was very, very helpful against a left-handed dominant lineup. From there it was an eye opener in how much it opens the door for me.”

Hammel said the quality of his pitches is no better now than at any point last season, but it’s that mental focus that has been better for him.

“Oh definitely. Same stuff. Stuff hasn’t changed in years, just a different way I am using the stuff now. I can proudly say that I learned how to pitch, finally. I was a thrower before. Now I can say I’m a pitcher,” he said.

Tonight he faces the Yankees for the first time since 2008. He is 1-2 with a 7.45 ERA in 11 career games, including five starts, against New York. He’ll try to take that confidence and mental focus he has had this year to the mound again tonight.

“I wish I could have done it four years ago, right when I came up. But you know, it’s all a learning experience. Everyone goes through a maturation process. The confidence is the number one aspect of it. If you can’t pitch with confidence you are going to get hit around and get down,” he said.

After their latest win Sunday, the Orioles are 14-8 and, for now, enjoying life at the top of the AL East. And Hammel is enjoying life with his new teammates.

“We are having a blast right now. We’re not thinking about it, which is the way it should be. We still have a long way to go. We are not celebrating anything yet, but we know we are a good ballclub. We are going to keep pushing each other. We want to stay healthy and, shoot, we are just having fun right now,” he said.

Pitching matchups for the Yankees series:
Tonight: Jason Hammel (3-0, 1.73 ERA) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (1-3, 4.38 ERA)
Tuesday: Brian Matusz (0-3, 5.66 ERA) vs. Phil Hughes (1-3, 7.88 ERA)
Wednesday: Jake Arrieta (1-2, 4.45 ERA) vs. Ivan Nova (3-0, 5.18 ERA)

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