Across baseball circles, the Orioles' acquisition of right-hander Jason Hammel was seen as pre-spring training snoozer.
But over his first four starts in a Baltimore uniform, Hammel has made the majors take notice.
Hammel -- who came to Baltimore with a career 4.99 ERA as part of the trade that sent No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies on Feb. 6 -- has shown to be a much different pitcher so far as an Oriole. He continued his sparkling start Wednesday night, throwing seven shutout innings against a Toronto Blue Jays lineup that has scored the fourth-most runs in the American League.
The 29-year-old right hander danced mid-90s two-seam fastballs through the strike zone and missed Toronto bats all night, leading the Orioles to a 3-0 shutout win in front of an announced 10,415 at Camden Yards, the smallest crowd since the 2010 season.
With the win, their first shutout victory since Sept. 9, the Orioles (11-7) held on to a share of first place in the AL East, knocking Toronto (10-8) down a notch with their third straight win and fourth win over the Jays in five games this season. The Orioles sealed their second series win season over Toronto this season, the first time they've done that since 2009.
Hammel, who ran his career mark against Toronto to 4-0, bedeviled the Jays by holding them to four hits over seven innings and lowering his season ERA to 1.73. Hammel struck out seven and walked just one, and has 17 strikeouts in his past 13 innings. In each of his four starts this season, he has allowed two runs or fewer.
"I've worked hard on my delivery to make sure I can repeat a pitch," said Hammel (3-0). "Every time you throw a pitch, it should look the same, just a different finger placement, obviously, for the pitches. If you can make everything look the same, you are going to get a lot of swings -- four-seam, two-seam, slider, all should be coming off the same plane. I think we are doing that really well right now."
Hammel has been dazzling at home. In his first home start as an Oriole in the third game of the season, Hammel took a no-hit bid into the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins. In two home starts, Hammel has allowed just one run in 15 innings for a 0.60 ERA.
"He doesn't get too far ahead of himself," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's kind of like being on the 16th hole and thinking about the 17th and 18th hole. He's dwelling on what he's playing. If something happens that means he's got to face another hitter, he goes and gets it. I was hoping to get five or six [innings] out of him, and all of a sudden he got into the seventh inning for us, which really shortened the workload in the 'pen."
Orioles right-handed reliever Matt Lindstrom, the other player the Orioles acquired in the Guthrie trade, threw a perfect eighth inning but gave the kudos to his fellow former Rockie.
"When we came over together, I knew what kind of pitcher the Orioles were getting in him," Lindstrom said. "He's mixing his pitches well, and what I'm also seeing is Jason mixing in his two-seam fastball and utilizing it a lot more in counts where hitters think they're getting a four-seamer, and it's devastating. I'm his catch partner every day, so I think we're helping each other every day."
The Orioles hit a pair of solo homers off tough-luck Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek -- Wilson Betemit's shot to straight-away center in the second and Chris Davis' opposite-field bomb to left in the fourth -- and have a major league leading 18 solo homers, but with Hammel on the mound, it was all they would need.
Hammel kept the Blue Jays in check most of the night -- striking out the side in the third inning and not allowing a fly-ball out until the sixth. He survived a 32-pitch fourth inning -- which included a questionable call at first with two outs that loaded the bases -- while clinging to a one-run lead, striking out Toronto center fielder Colby Rasmus swinging to end the inning.
In the bottom half of the inning, Davis hit his second homer of the season, crushing an offering from Drabek (2-1) the opposite way about eight rows into the left-field stands.
Betemit, who committed errors at third base in each of the first two innings, atoned for his fielding miscues with a third-inning homer, his second home run of the season.
After Hammel walked off the field to an ovation after the seventh inning -- having thrown 105 pitches -- Lindstrom brought his high-90s fastball into the eighth and retired the side in order, including swinging strikeouts of Yunel Escobar and Jose Bautista.
The Orioles added an insurance run in the eighth on Adam Jones' two-out RBI double off Jason Frasor, which scored Nick Markakis, who had walked.
For the second straight night, Pedro Strop pitched the ninth -- closer Jim Johnson remained hospitalized with flu symptoms and an infection -- and brought the tying run to the plate before inducing a 6-4-3 double play from Brett Lawrie to earn his second career big league save and keep the Orioles atop the division.
"I think it's a little bit of everything," Davis said of the Orioles' start. "Obviously, our pitching's been outstanding lately, the bullpen's been great, we've been getting hits when we really need it. We've been playing really good defense. We're not trying to go out there and reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to do what we know how to do best and stick with that and not try to go out there and create things and just kind of take what the game gives us and capitalize on the opportunities we're given."
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