From catcher Matt Wieters' perspective, Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel was bringing his best stuff in his first start after the All-Star break Friday night.
“Probably the best he's thrown since early in the year,” Wieters said about Hammel's first three innings against the Detroit Tigers.
It was exactly what the Orioles needed coming out of the break, as their incredible start was starting to fade thanks to by a patchwork rotation and their inability to score runs.
Then came a misstep that could be much more costly than the Orioles' 7-2 loss.
The 29-year-old Hammel left the game in the fourth inning after limping off the mound with an injury to his balky right knee following a pitch to Tigers right-fielder Brennan Boesch.
Now, some very nervous waiting. Hammel will have an MRI on Saturday afternoon.
“I was driving toward the plate and it didn't feel good,” Hammel said through a team spokesperson while receiving treatment. “Something felt really bad. It's the same area as the injury was before.
“It was something that just happened on that pitch,” Hammel added. “I mean, the normal things I've been dealing since the actual original injury happened. It hasn't changed ... nothing felt like a pop or anything like that.”
After delivering his 65th pitch — a 92-mph fastball — Hammel hopped off the mound while manager Buck Showalter and team trainers rushed onto the field. After a few warmup pitches, Hammel headed off the field, leaving the starting rotation — and to some degree, the Orioles' season — on ice.
“I had a feeling when I went out there,” Showalter said. “You kind of wait and see, try to not draw too much alarm to it. I let Matt [Wieters] go out there at first, and then you go by his body language. I just watched his face, I didn't watch his delivery.”
Hammel's right knee, which was drained Sunday, has been an issue throughout the season. Off-days in the first half allowed the Orioles to give Hammel extra days off in between outings. Nine of his 17 starts coming into Friday came on more than four days rest.
When he's been on the mound, Hammel has held the Orioles' struggling rotation together, along with rookie left-hander Wei-Yin Chen. The other three members of the rotation on Opening Day — Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter — have been jettisoned to Triple-A Norfolk.
But now the pitcher who placed third in the fan balloting for the final spot on the American League All-Star roster is a question mark.
Showalter tried to remain optimistic.
“He's had some pitches he's thrown this year where it bit him a little bit and then went away,” Showalter said. “This one didn't go away. “The good news right now is it doesn't seem to be swelling, which is usually indicative of something. We'll take that as good news and see what the tests show tomorrow.
“Because of the way Hamm's performed,” Showalter added. “I don't want to throw dirt over him right now. We're hoping we hear something good.”
Hammel left the game trailing 2-1, after allowing a two-out-, two-run single by Boesch in a first inning that featured four Tigers singles. Hammel allowed just one hit over his next two innings, striking out five and walking one.
But without Hammel, who has gone six or more innings in 12 of his 17 starts, the Orioles went on to lose their 14th game in their last 20 in front of an announced 35,566.
“It took a lot out of the game,” Showalter said. “One of our better pitchers had to leave the game early on.”
Called to action early, the Orioles' bullpen allowed five runs in its first two innings of work, including a mammoth homer by Miguel Cabrera off Luis Ayala in a four-run fifth. The blast hit off the batter's eye beyond the center-field wall and was estimated 454 feet, the fifth longest homer in Camden Yards history. Jhonny Peralta added a three-run homer off Dana Eveland later that inning.
The Orioles opened the second half with right fielder Nick Markakis — who missed five weeks after surgery to remove a fractured piece of the hamate bone in his right wrist — making his first start from the leadoff spot in 997 career major league games. Chris Davis, who played some right field in Markakis' absence, made his first major start in left.
The re-organization didn't work. With just two runs, the Orioles have been held to two or fewer runs in 13 of their last 23 games. They've also been held to single-digit hits in 19 of their last 23 game and have recorded three or fewer extra-base hits in 22 of their last 23.
The Orioles managed just six hits on the this night and were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
And now they could possibly be without their top pitcher.
“That would be a huge [blow] for us,” Davis said. “He has been our horse all year. Obviously tonight we didn't give anybody a lot of run support. ... But to lose a guy like that at this point in the season would be really tough.
“But somebody's gonna have to step up,” Davis added. “We've got some guys that are capable of doing it that aren't here and it's going to be time to figure it out and make it translate up here.”