Hammel's sore right knee causes Orioles to shuffle rotation, roster

Orioles manager Buck Showalter knew that at some point, his team's depth would be tested. And now in the fifth week of this young season, Showalter has his first true test: shuffling his roster throughout a sudden rash of injuries.

The biggest — and most worrisome one — is right-hander Jason Hammel's right-knee soreness that will force the Orioles to push back his next start, which was scheduled for Thursday. Hammel said the soreness has gotten worse over his past two or three starts and has started to affect his delivery.

"We're trying to be real cautious with it," Showalter said.

The sudden and indefinite loss of Hammel, who ranks fourth in the American League in wins (four) and ERA (2.09) as well as fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.8), is just the tip of the injury iceberg.

With Wednesday's game against the Rangers postponed because of rain, the Orioles will recall right-hander Tommy Hunter, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Monday, to pitch in Game 2 of Thursday's doubleheader. That means that the Orioles will have to make a corresponding move to the disabled list — players sent to the minors must stay there for 10 days unless needed as part of a DL move — which will most likely be outfielder Endy Chavez, who has been battling an intercostal strain.

Before Wednesday's game, the Orioles added positional depth by purchasing the contract of utility man Steve Tolleson from Norfolk. With starting left fielder Nolan Reimold (bulging disk in his neck) already on the DL and Chavez hurt, the Orioles need someone to fill Ryan Flaherty's utility role as he fills in in left field along with Wilson Betemit.

"We need the depth in the infield and the positions he can play — left field, right field, short, third, second. We feel like he serves the need we have," Showalter said. "He's probably swinging the bat as well as anyone they've got. I was impressed with him during the spring."

In 26 games at Norfolk, Tolleson had a .265 average, .357 on-base percentage and .361 slugging percentage with one homer and 11 RBIs. He has also committed six errors this season.

To make room for Tolleson on the 40-man roster, the club transferred catcher Taylor Teagarden, who went on the DL on April 4 with a back injury, to the 60-day disabled list. To make space on the 25-man roster, the Orioles optioned left-handed reliever Zach Phillips to Norfolk. Phillips, recalled Tuesday, was with the Orioles for one day (he allowed two earned runs in two-thirds of an inning in relief Tuesday).

The Orioles also need to fill Friday's starting pitcher slot, Hunter's spot in the rotation before he was sent down after two rocky starts. The Orioles will likely purchase the contract of left-hander Dana Eveland, who is 3-2 with a 2.21 ERA in 362/3 innings over six starts, to make that start. Right-hander Chris Tillman (3-3, 5.10 ERA in 30 innings over six games for Norfolk) is also a possibility.

Hammel, who has anchored the rotation with a 4-1 record, said he is confident that being pushed back will help him avoid a stint on the disabled list.

An MRI taken this week showed inflammation and fluid and "maybe an old injury that had been re-aggravated." But Hammel said the soreness has gotten to the point where it's hurting his ability to pitch.

"I can't really drive off my back leg," Hammel said before Wednesday night's game was postponed. "It was getting worse and worse, so I think the smart thing to do is give it a couple days, if we can, to kind of calm it down instead of missing a month or a month and a half or more. And we'll go from there."

Hammel said he had a similar problem with his left knee at the end of the 2008 season with the Tampa Bay Rays that required surgery at the end of the season.

"Obviously, I'm not too happy about it," Hammel said. "But it's just the smartest thing to do for right now. I need to help this team down the road. Initially, one start instead of trying to battle through it and it keep getting worse and worse, maybe something bigger would happen. We will see if we can get it controlled."

Hammel said treatment has helped but there's no schedule on when he could slide back into the rotation.

"I haven't been told anything over the last couple days, though I've made a lot of progress with it with just treatment," Hammel said. "So I'm confident that it's not going to be very long. I've thrown, I've tested it every day, trying to see every day where it's at. Obviously, it's my right knee, it's my back knee, so it's my drive leg. If I don't have that, I'm not going to be able to pitch."

eencina@baltsun.com

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