Even though right-hander Jason Hammel is – at the age of 29 – the oldest pitcher in the Orioles' starting rotation, manager Buck Showalter has been careful in not labeling him the sage of the quintet.
Instead, Showalter had lumped Hammel with the rest of his young starters – as promising arms still learning how to establish themselves.
In fact, the Orioles weren’t quite sure what they were getting in Hammel, who came to Baltimore with an ERA just south of 5.00. He was the odd man out on a young, talented Rays pitching staff and traded to Colorado following the 2008 season. In the ensuing three years with the Rockies, he became an innings eater, but was sent to the bullpen in late August of last year.
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But the Orioles did see something in how Hammel changed his approach once he was sent to the bullpen last year. He worked out some mechanical flaws. He focused more on his fastball command and used his slider off that. Mentally, he became a more grounded pitcher.
"I look at it as a 29-year-old guy who had his struggles and was traded, and started to figure out who he was, especially toward the end of last year,” Showalter said. “Talking to [Rockies manager] Jim Tracy and some people I trust over there about where he was, we're basically trying to pick up on what happened with him the last month and a half of the season over in Colorado, where they put him in the 'pen and did some other things with him, started. They saw some things out of him and our people saw some things out of him that they hadn't seen before and we tried to take that and run with it.
“I don't look at him like the leader of some young guys. I don't want to put that on him. They band together, they talk about it. But it's a competitive thing. Every fifth day, they've got to be ready to give us a chance to win. Simple as that. It's not near the brain surgery that everybody makes it out to be. Keep us in the game. That's easier said than done."
Throw in a two-seam sinking fastball that Hammel honed this spring with Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair and Hammel suddenly has a nice arsenal. To Adair, the lean, 6-foot-6 Hammel was very similar to Tigers pitcher Doug Fister, whom Adair worked with in Seattle. He reintroduced that two-seamer into Hammel’s repertoire.
And Hammel was throwing all four of his pitches for strikes Sunday afternoon as he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of the Orioles' 3-1 win over the Twins, which clinched a series sweep to open the season.
“Experience is on my side now,” Hammel said. “[Coming up with the Rays], I was a young pup, just coming out and throwing and seeing what I can do. Now, I've learned a few things, learned some names and figured myself out as a pitcher. I think we're really on the tip of the iceberg. I feel like I can get even better.
“It was a pleasure to do that for the fans, the first time they've seen me. They sure knew what was going on and they backed me up pretty good. What I did in spring training at the end of last year was a huge help. Changed my focus on the mound. I was starting to wander, think of the wrong things instead of what I could do. It's really changed my game a lot.”