South Kitsap grad Hammel adjusts to new responsibilities with Tampa Bay Rays

Jason Hammel loosens up in the outfield prior to last week’s visit to Safeco Field. - Jesse Beals/Staff Photo
Jason Hammel loosens up in the outfield prior to last week’s visit to Safeco Field.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/Staff Photo

The lanky right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and four pitches would have found a place in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ starting rotation in the franchise’s first 10 years.

But after compiling a 645-972 record during that span, Tampa Bay dropped the Devil from its name — and its losing ways during the offseason.

It also added starter Matt Garza in a trade with Minnesota, which left no room in the rotation for 2000 South Kitsap graduate Jason Hammel.

Hammel, who turns 26 on Sept. 2, returned to Safeco Field last week when the Rays played a four-game series against the Mariners. He hasn’t started since April when No. 1 starter Scott Kazmir returned from the disabled list.

Hammel’s ERA has been significantly better in relief (3.48 to 4.88), but his peripheral statistics don’t indicate much difference.

His strikeout and walks rates and opponents batting average nearly are identical in both roles.

Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey said Hammel’s consistency has enabled him to stay in the major leagues for an entire season. Hammel split the last two seasons between Triple-A Durham and Tampa Bay, where he pitched in 33 games (23 starts).

Hammel has been a starter every year since he was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2002 out of Oregon’s Treasure Valley Community College, and Hickey said he still views him as “a very competent starter.

“We’re in a situation right now where we have more talent probably than we’ve had in the history of the franchise,” Hickey said. “And a lot of that talent is in the starting rotation.”

Hammel said the move to the bullpen hasn’t bothered him. Before this season, the Rays never won more than 70 games. After the series against the Mariners, Tampa Bay’s record was 71-46, and Hammel said he’s enjoying being a part of a competitive division race with Boston and New York.

“Those are two great ball teams,” he said. “We’re just showing them we belong.”

Some in the Northwest compare this year’s Rays to the 1995 Mariners, another franchise that struggled historically before surprising many with its run to an American League West championship.

Hammel, who originally was drafted by Seattle out of high school in the 23rd round before he elected to attend college, said he hopes the outcome will be similar for his team.

“That was an exciting year to watch,” he said. “It’s exciting to be on the other end and experience all the fun.”

Hammel, who has a 3-3 record with a 4.33 ERA, primarily is working as a long reliever for the Rays, said he hadn’t allowed a run in five innings this month until he gave up two in the ninth during Sunday’s 11-3 win against the Mariners.

“I’m grasping it and getting my own routine down,” he said. “I’m comfortable with it and enjoying it.”

When he’s not on the mound, Hammel enjoys playing “Guitar Hero” on Xbox 360. He liked the game enough that his fiancée, Elissa Nichols, bought him an acoustic guitar a couple of years ago.

Hammel said he hasn’t had time begin playing it, but hopes to soon.

Another of Hammel’s occasional hobbies is tattoos. His love of the game led him to his first tattoo, which features flames coming out of a baseball.

He got that one at Treasure Valley, and he calls it silly.

The other holds more meaning. Hammel and his brothers, William IV and Gunther, have a band on their arms with their father’s signature.

Bill Hammel suffered a heart attack and died three days after Christmas in 1999.

“It’s kind of a little tribute to him,” said Hammel, who inscribes his father’s initials on his shoes. “It’s on my right arm, and he’s the one who got me started in baseball. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Hammel’s father often reminded him that the odds a Little Leaguer will play in the major leagues are slim. He said that gave him incentive to work hard to accomplish his dream. Now, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Hammel is trying to develop consistency with his pitches — fastball, slider, curveball and change-up — that will enable him to establish himself.

Ideally, that will be as a starter.

“I was in there in the beginning of the year and I did my job,” he said. “I helped the team out when Kaz was hurt.”

For now, it’s a tradeoff he’s happy to make as part of baseball’s biggest surprise.

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