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Healthy Hammel hopes to build on breakout season
SEATTLE — He never will complain.
But no one will accuse Baltimore Orioles right-handed pitcher Jason Hammel, a 2000 South Kitsap High School graduate, of having good fortune in the major leagues.
As soon as the Tampa Bay Rays — after a decade of futility — became good, Hammel was traded baseball’s worst pitching environment in Colorado. And when finally freed of that situation when he was traded Feb. 6, 2012, Hammel’s career-best season was marred by an injury to his right knee, which required surgery after he left during the fourth inning July 13 against Detroit. Hammel, who finished with 8-6 record and a career-low 3.43 ERA, made just two more starts that season.
“It hasn’t been as easy as I wanted it to be,” said Hammel, who returned Monday to Safeco Field, where the Orioles lost 6-2 against the Mariners. “One thing I was able to do is grow and when it’s not easy, figure out a way to get through it.”
Hammel said it was difficult not to help the team during the pennant race — the Orioles finished second in the American League East with a 93-69 record — but there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Surgery removed floating cartilage in his knee.
“It kind of hung with me for about a month and then after awhile I couldn’t bear it,” Hammel said.
The injury was nothing that Hammel could not handle, though. Late during the 2011, Hammel was demoted from the hapless Rockies’ rotation and his career appeared in peril. That was when then-Colorado bullpen coach Jim Wright intervened. Wright persuaded Hammel to block out all external distractions. During bullpen sessions, his sole focus was to hit the glove propped up on sandbags.
When anyone asks about his breakout last season, Hammel said that is the place to start.
“I think it went all the way back to the end of ’11,” he said. “I was just able to focus a little better on the right things instead of the wrong things.”
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, who selected Hammel to start the season opener, agreed.
“He came to us as a pretty good product,” he said. “That’s all been Jason. He made some adjustments in his last month in Colorado and we’re fortunate to have him when it all started to come together for him. He’s a winning pitcher.”
The Orioles traded their top starter, Jeremy Guthrie, to acquire Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. While Hammel flourished — his 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings easily was a career-best — Guthrie struggled to pitch in Colorado’s mile-high altitude. He pitched in just 19 games for the Rockies before being traded to Kansas City.
“It’s not a fun place to pitch,” said Hammel, who throws a fastball, curveball, change-up and slider. “I took that as a three-year lesson on how to pitch down there.”
After all, the 6-foot-6, 225-pounder did not play baseball until 1999 when legendary South baseball coach Elton Goodwin persuaded 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 Tampa Bay after being picked in the 10th round.
Hammel could have been in the opposite clubhouse at Safeco Field under different circumstances, but he has no regrets. He and his wife, Elissa, married in 2009 and settled in Rehoboth, Mass. Their son, Beckett, was born on his father’s birthday — Sept. 2, 2011. The 20-month old already is swinging a baseball bat.
“I like the fact that he’s a good husband, good father and a good human being,” Showalter said. “He’s someone you can trust.”
Because he lives and plays on the East Coast, Hammel does not see his younger brother, stepmother and friends from high school too often. For those reasons, he relishes the opportunity to pitch at Safeco Field. This was Baltimore’s only trip this season to Seattle.
“It is one of my favorites spots,” Hammel said. “There’s a lot of history here for me growing up out here. It’s a beautiful stadium that’s way ahead of its time. It’s always fun to come back to the Northwest.”
After allowing two runs in five innings during a 7-2 win Tuesday at Seattle, Hammel improved his record to 4-1 and lowered his ERA to 3.79. One concern is his diminishing strikeout rate, which is at 5.3 per nine innings this season. Now that his knee is healthy, Hammel hopes to regain the form that made him and the Orioles among the biggest surprises in baseball last year.
“It’s one thing to be a one-hit wonder,” he said. “What we want to do is be good every year.”