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Hammel trying to solve cholesterol mystery

Hammel trying to solve cholesterol mystery

Hammel trying to solve cholesterol mystery
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies right-hander Jason Hammel has learned that medical innovation is sometimes inexact.

Now he is navigating taking care of a medical condition, high cholesterol, a hereditary condition that's scary, considering his father died of a heart attack at age 46.

But he must do so while balancing the demands of pitching in the Majors, with the added responsibility of not running afoul of the MLB banned substance list. His first attempt at an answer, going away from traditional treatment, has had mixed results, but it's early.

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"If I could get my body to do it all by itself, I'd love to -- I don't want to have to take 15 pills a day," said Hammel, 28. "But I've got to be really careful with what I put in my body. It stinks but it's something I can't avoid."

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Hammel was diagnosed last spring. After an over-the-counter regimen did little to reduce his cholesterol, he was placed on the prescription drug Crestor. Problem was, increased soreness is an acknowledged side effect, and Hammel feels it was partly to blame for his painful and ineffective finish to 2010.

After the season, at the suggestion of his wife, Hammel dropped Crestor for acupuncture and an herbal treatment, and he spoke enthusiastically about the new plan in January, when he signed a two-year, $7.75 million contract.

If would have been wonderful if that were the end of the story. But as many folks who deal with health issues can attest, trial and error is often standard operating procedure. That is why Hammel agreed to discuss his situation with MLB.com on Thursday. He didn't want to leave the impression he had found a miracle cure.

Blood work taken during the winter showed that Hammel's bad cholesterol had risen to a higher level than it was when the problem was first brought to his attention.

"That was kind of predicted, that there would be a rebound, just because the body didn't have that chemical or whatever it was that was helping lower it," Hammel said. "We did see the boost. It actually went up a lot. It went higher than it was when I was first tested."

So now what?

Hammel acknowledges that Crestor was quite effective in lowering his cholesterol, and that's most important from the perspective of general quality of life. But it wasn't designed with the rigors of Major League pitching.

He finished 10-9 with a 4.81 ERA -- the second straight year in double-figure wins for Hammel, who bounced between the rotation and the bullpen for the Rays before being traded to the Rockies at the start of 2009. But he called the season a "complete failure" for the way it ended.

From Sept. 14, when the Rockies were in prime contention for a playoff spot, through season's end, Hammel went 0-2 with a 9.56 ERA in four starts. He lasted five innings just once. The Rockies, who dropped to third in the final standings, lost three of those four Hammel starts.

During that time, Hammel's problems were explained as "extreme dead arm." It was also revealed that he was dealing with a sinus infection. The possibility that it was related to his medication wasn't revealed until well after the season.

This spring, Hammel is shortening his arm action, pulling the ball out of his glove and moving it to throwing position quicker, in hopes of gaining consistency in the strike zone so he can throw fewer pitches and reduce fatigue. But he also wants to be confident his medication isn't working against him.

"I'm hoping that the Crestor didn't have that much of an impact, but my body has never felt like that," he said.

Since arriving at Spring Training, the news is more positive. Hammel said the blood work from the physical at the start of camp shows his bad cholesterol has been reduced, not to the point it was when he took Crestor but still enough for him to feel encouraged about the acupuncture and herbals, for now.

That is, if what he's taking is permitted by baseball.

MLB has a policy against the use of performance enhancing drugs and stimulants. It's clear he isn't taking the herbs to help him pitch better, but Hammel said he is responsible for making sure the herbs don't show up in either category on a drug test.

"I don't see why they would, but you never know," Hammel said. "I'm sending them in to be tested, just to make sure. It's all herbal, so it shouldn't be. But it could be what it's being made in, to make sure it isn't contaminated.

"Right now, I'm basically taking nothing," he said. "Well, I'm still taking my fish oil and CoQ10 [an enzyme, normally produced by the body, for cell health and maintenance] and baby aspirin. That should help me just maintain for right now. That was the initial thing, but it didn't go the way we wanted. Then I tried the Crestor and the herbs.

"I'm just trying to find the right combination."

Hammel said an option is to return to Crestor in the offseason, but during the season replace it with the herbal treatment or his current over-the-counter regimen of supplements and aspirin.

"It's just going to be something I'm going to have to monitor the rest of my life," Hammel said. "It's a constant battle."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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