Sports

South Kitsap grad finding his comfort zone in Baltimore

Baltimore Orioles starter Jason Hammel, who graduated from South Kitsap in 2000, attributed much of his new-found success to experience. He’s seen here at Safeco Field throwing to first base and on one of the stadium’s digital screens. - Jeff Rhodes photo
Baltimore Orioles starter Jason Hammel, who graduated from South Kitsap in 2000, attributed much of his new-found success to experience. He’s seen here at Safeco Field throwing to first base and on one of the stadium’s digital screens.
— image credit: Jeff Rhodes photo

SEATTLE — Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter acknowledges he is not technologically savvy.

In order to vote as many times as possible for starting pitcher Jason Hammel, a 2000 South Kitsap graduate, Showalter enlisted his 25-year-old daughter to show him how to do it through text messaging.

“I voted for him,” Showalter said. “We’ll see. There are a lot of very worthy candidates. Ham is certainly one of them.”

Hammel, 29, is one of five American League players listed on baseball’s Final Vote ballot, which ends at 1 p.m. Thursday. The player who receives the most votes advances to Tuesday’s All-Star game in Kansas City.

The right-hander’s bid for his first All-Star berth was not enhanced by Monday’s outing at Safeco Field, where he allowed four runs on seven hits through 6 2/3 innings. But Hammel was not helped by the Orioles defense, which leads the major leagues with 70 errors. At least three balls that weren’t ruled errors, including a dropped catch by second baseman Robert Andino on a steal attempt that extended what would become a three-run seventh inning, ended up costing Hammel’s bid for his ninth win of the season.

That potential out proved costly when outfielder Casper Wells hit a two-out, three-run triple to give the Mariners a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning. Wells was the final batter Hammel, who made his first appearance since 2008 at Safeco Field, faced.

“He pitched well enough to win,” said Showalter, whose team was charged with one error.

Hammel, who has an 8-4 record with a 3.43 ERA, will make his last start before the All-Star game Saturday against the Los Angeles Angels.

“You dream of being an All-Star when you are a kid,” Hammel said. “You want to be an All-Star when you are in Little League and every step of the way. Just to be mentioned or to be a part of the final vote is great.”

Not bad for a 6-foot-6, 225-pounder who did not play baseball until his junior year of high school when legendary South baseball coach Elton Goodwin pursuaded the soccer player to try a new sport.

He developed enough passion for the game that his first tattoo featured flames coming out of a baseball. Hammel got that after he spurned an opportunity to sign with the Mariners out of high school as a 23rd-round selection to attend Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon. Two years later, he signed with the Tampa Bay Devils Rays after being picked in the 10th round.

Hammel made his major-league debut on April 11, 2006, as a 23-year-old and was traded three years later to Colorado, where he became a full-time starter for the first time. He won 10 games in each of his first two seasons with the Rockies with a 4.57 ERA, which is an above-average mark when offensive-heavy factors of Coors Field are factored in, and averaged nearly seven strikeouts per nine innings pitched. But Hammel saw his walk rate (3.6 per nine innings) soar, while his strikeout mark (5.0) plummeted last year as his record fell to 7-13.

Despite that, Baltimore parted with its No. 1 starter, Jeremy Guthrie, to acquire Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom on Feb. 6. An anonymous scout panned the trade in Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview because he felt Hammel would struggle to adjust to the American League East, which features traditional powers in New York and Boston along with Tampa Bay, which has been a World Series contender in recent years.

Instead, Hammel has flourished as the Orioles, who have not finished with a winning record since 1997 and remain in playoff race with a 42-37 record. Meanwhile, Guthrie has been banished to the Rockies bullpen.

“I’d like to say we won that trade,” Hammel said.

That can be attributed to Hammel’s transformation, which has nothing to do with luck. Hammel’s 3.20 Fielding Independent Pitching, which is a measurement of all facets hurlers are responsible for, is the lowest of his career. He is averaging a career-best 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings this season.

Baltimore pitching coach Rick Adair, who held a similar position for Triple-A Colorado Springs in the late 1980s, attributes some of Hammel’s improvement to leaving the Rocky Mountains.

“I coached in Colorado Springs for three years in Triple-A,” Adair said. “It’s tough.”

But that does not alone explain how Hammel has developed from a fringe major-league starter into a potential all-star. Adair said Hammel has improved control of his two-seam fastball, which also has made his secondary pitches more effective. He said that pitch has more movement than recent years.

Hammel agreed, but added that he thinks experience has been the most significant factor in his success this season.

“Guys get to this age, you start figuring it out,” he said. “You starting figuring out the league, learning how to pitch, learning how to make adjustments on the fly. I think that’s where I’m at now.”

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