Jason Hammel turned in a very fine performance tonight, working through another night of poor defense at the corner infield positions to turn in seven innings of shutout baseball. The offense couldn't do much against Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek, but it was just enough thanks to the strong pitching from Hammel and the bullpen.
In the first inning, Hammel made quick work of the first two batters then induced a ground ball to third from Jose Bautista. Wilson Betemit fielded the ball but lobbed a lazy throw to first base. It bounced pretty far in front of the bag and past first baseman Chris Davis. The error was charged to Betemit but it was a sloppy play all around. The error turned a 12-pitch inning into an 18-pitch inning as Hammel had to face another batter, and Adam Lind worked him for six pitches before popping out.
Nearly the same thing happened to Hammel again in the second inning, as he recorded two quick outs and again, a ground ball to Betemit that he again couldn't make the play on. It was a very frustrating few innings and for everyone who wants Betemit in there at third base instead of Mark Reynolds, now you see why it doesn't really matter. It's like asking if you'd rather get hit in the face with a frying pan or kicked by a horse. Hammel didn't crack, though, needing just one more pitch to retire the side.
With two good innings in the books for Hammel, the O's offense decided to show up. Although show up is kind of a strong term for what they did tonight. At any rate, Betemit did his best to make up for his horrendous fielding by sending a home run to center field. It just cleared the wall but since that is the biggest part of the ballpark I'll cut him some slack. The homer gave the O's a 1-0 lead.
Hammel responded to his lead by striking out the side in the third inning. I have to say, it's early and everything, but Hammel's pitches look fantastic this year. He's got velocity, he's got movement. I didn't expect this from him.
In the fourth inning, however, Hammel's command was off just a bit. It took six pitches to retire Bautista and then Hammel walked Lind. After a single to Eric Thames, Hammel struck out Encarnacion, which is good! But it took eight pitches, which is bad. With two outs, Brett Lawrie grounded out to shortstop. The ball was weakly hit and J.J. Hardy made a good play to get the throw to first just ahead of Lawrie. But wait! The umpire called Lawrie safe. Replays showed he was in fact out, and Buck Showalter came out to argue, but you know. I guess calls at first only get reversed if you're Jacoby Ellsbury and it's the last game of the season.
Hammel had already had a tough inning, and now he had to deal with a bases loaded situation when the inning should have been over. He struck out Colby Rasmus on seven pitches, another long at bat. The Blue Jays didn't score any runs but Hammel threw 32 pitches in the inning and it appeared that Hammel's promising outing might be cut short due to a high pitch count affected greatly by bad defense and bad umpiring.
In the bottom of the 4th inning, Davis came to the plate and, like Betemit before him, tried to atone for his glove by using his bat. He sent Kyle Drabek's fastball over the left field fence for a homer. There are a lot of way to beat Chris Davis, but a fastball down the middle isn't one of them.
Back to Hammel. He'd had a tough inning in the fourth and 32 pitches is a lot of work for one inning, could he bounce back? SPOILER: YES. He only needed 10 pitches to record one strikeout and two groundouts, and he was similarly effecient in the sixth inning thanks to just a bit of luck (about time!). Bautista started the inning with a ground ball single between shortstop and third, and then with one out Thames hit a rocket right at second baseman Ryan Flaherty. It may have been the hardest hit ball of the night. It was hit so hard that Bautista had no time to get back to first before being doubled off.
After his rough fourth inning, I never thought Hammel would make it to the seventh inning, but he did. He had to face four batters in the seventh thanks to another ground ball single into left field, but he was able to finish the inning with no damage. What a fantastic night by Hammel. His final pitching line was 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 7 K. If he'd gotten just a few breaks along the way he might have had a complete game.
Hammel was replaced in the 8th by Matt Lindstrom, the other piece of the Jeremy Guthrie trade. Lindstrom was fantastic with 2 strikeouts and a ground out. And the O's even added an insurance run in the bottom of the 8th courtesy of a Nick Markakis walk and an Adam Jones RBI double.
With a three-run lead and closer Jim Johnson still under the weather, Pedro Strop came out of the bullpen to attempt his second consecutive save. He got it, but allowed a few hits in the process. But all's well that ends well, and the Orioles are now 4-1 against the Blue Jays on the season.
The Birds will go for the sweep tomorrow, but with Brian Matusz on the mound and many of the hitters injured, sick, on paternity leave, or just plain crappy, it'll be a tough one to win.