Sports

Hammel homecoming lives up to expectations

He spoke of the hook, the one that started belt high before its immediate break toward the feet.

South Kitsap graduate Jason Hammel might never throw a curve ball quite like Darryl Kile, but Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey sees a “similar build and similar delivery” as the former major-league star.

Kile was a three-time all-star for Houston and St. Louis in a career that spanned 12 seasons before his death midway through the 2002 season. Hammel, who made his first start against his childhood favorite team Thursday night at Safeco Field, hopes this is just the beginning of a lengthy big-league career.

Hammel, who earned his first win as a starter on his birthday, Sept. 2, against New York at Yankee Stadium, arguably pitched his best game in an 8-7 loss against the Mariners. He allowed one run and five hits and had six strikeouts in six innings against Seattle and left with a 7-1 lead.

“I thought he did very, very well,” Hickey said. “I expected him to be a little more anxious than he was because it was the homecoming, if you will.”

If Hammel felt any anxiety, he didn’t show it. The 6-foot-6 right-hander struck out Ichiro on six pitches to start the game.

“I had some pretty good adrenaline flowing there in front of the hometown,” said Hammel, adding that he gave away 27 tickets to family and friends and had 36 people in attendance. “I felt really good over the rubber and overall it was a good effort.”

He allowed a pair of hits in the first inning, but didn’t surrender a run until the fifth when Ichiro singled to shallow left field to score Kenji Johjima.

“He got himself into a couple of spots where he got behind to a couple of guys and had a couple of runners on,” Hickey said. “I think what I was most impressed with was, as he did that, his ability to throw an off-speed pitch for a strike. It was something probably even a couple of months ago he wouldn’t have been able to do.”

His three September starts seem to reflect that. Hammel said the transition from minor-league starter to a reliever was difficult and got him “out of rhythm” when he moved back into the rotation July 21. Even though he has a 2-4 record and a 6.13 ERA this season, Hammel has allowed only four runs and has struck out 14 batters in 17 innings this month.

“It’s the best I’ve felt all year,” said Hammel, referring to his latest start. “I’ve been ironing some things out and it looks like it’s all coming together.”

Hammel was successful in the minor leagues with a 37-34 record and 3.46 ERA. He combined with reliever Juan Salas to throw the first no-hitter in the history of the Triple-A Durham Bulls on July 16, 2006 and made nine starts for the Devil Rays that season. Hickey hopes that Hammel will emerge as a starter behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields in the team’s rotation next season.

“He’s got a couple more starts and hopefully he can do that a couple more times and really be a guy that you’re comfortable with going into next year in the rotation,” he said.

But for the next few days, Hammel, who now lives in Florida, hopes to become reacquainted with some old friends as the Devil Rays are at Safeco Field through Sunday. He said his cellphone rang constantly in the week leading up to his start.

“It’s nice to come back to the hometown folk,” he said. “It’s always nice to have a little extra support on the road.”

He also enjoyed the opportunity to face Bloomquist, a 1996 South graduate, who grounded out twice. Hammel said he had posters of Bloomquist and Sean Spencer — another South graduate who pitched two games for the Mariners in 1999 — as a youth.

But it was his father, William Gerard Hammel III, who inspired him to play baseball as the family moved from the younger Hammel’s native South Carolina to Pennsylvania and then to Port Orchard. The elder Hammel never saw his son compete beyond high school — he died Dec. 28, 1999 of natural causes during his son’s senior year.

“I’ve got his initials on the inside of my shoes,” said Hammel, adding that he recently had his father’s name tattooed on his body. “I keep him in my heart.”

Hammel said “if it wasn’t for him, I probably would’ve played football or something else.” Instead, he passed on an opportunity to sign as a 23rd-round selection with the Mariners in 2000 and headed to Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon. He also was selected by the Devil Rays in the 19th round the following year, but didn’t sign with Tampa Bay until 2002 when he was a 10th-round selection.

Even though he didn’t sign with the Mariners, he considers Safeco Field — where he had his first professional tryout — the place his career started. Seven years later, with a fastball that reached 95 mph Thursday, curve ball, changeup and slider, he hopes it’s just the start of “something to look forward to.”

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