Frankly, Jason Hammel has been playing with fire all season.
The Orioles' Opening Day starter hasn’t been crisp – honest-to-goodness smooth and effortless like in early 2012 – at all in nine starts.
Sure, he beat the Tampa Bay Rays on Opening Day in a quality start (three runs in six innings) and then beat himself up afterward for not having good command. Then there were his six innings without an earned run against Oakland on April 25 in which he threw only 59 of his 104 pitches for strikes, but got away with a lot of mistakes.
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Bottom line is that he was 5-1 on the season and the Orioles were 7-1 in his starts. So there was no reason to sound the panic alarm even though his ERA was near 5.00.
Well, after Friday’s clunker, a game in which he gave up seven earned runs and allowed 12 baserunners in 4 2/3 innings, the concern should rise exponentially.
And not just about Hammel, but about the rotation in general.
Hammel is not pitching up to his capabilities; Wei-Yin Chen is hurt; so is Miguel Gonzalez though he could return Tuesday.
Chris Tillman has been solid, but the rest of the guys that have been asked to make a start or starts – Jake Arrieta, Freddy Garcia, Josh Stinson, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton – didn’t deliver. Or haven’t yet anyway.
Jair Jurrjens has ‘Next up’ on Saturday.
Consider that in the Orioles’ last six games, a starter has gone five or more innings once – and that will take its toll on a good bullpen.
So something has to happen here – and it’d be nice if it started with Hammel. He is the club’s No. 1. He has a 5.72 ERA and has gone deeper than five innings just once in his last four starts. He’s got to pitch better; he’s got to command his fastball better; he’s got to go longer. And he’s got to stop psyching himself out on the mound.
“It’s been what I’ve dealt with for my whole career, trying to do too much,” Hammel said. “Going back and watching the video, I made some great pitches (Friday) and there were some pretty bad ones. It’s a matter of removing those bad ones.”
There is some good news here, though, if you’re fishing for that silver lining. Hammel has dealt with these kinds of skids before. When he was with Tampa Bay and when he was with Colorado. Mechanically, he believes he knows what is wrong. Psychologically, he knows what he can’t do.
“The minute you start beating up yourself, you kind of put yourself behind the eight ball,” he said. “So I always expect the best out of myself, but I do know that I’ve been in this situation before, where I’ve been through a little tough run, that getting down on yourself and really beating yourself up and not letting yourself get better will only hurt you. So I’ve got to have a short memory and get back to work.”
Hammel is saying all the right things. And he’s proven that he can snap out of funks in the past.
All the Orioles can do is hope that he’ll do it again.
Because with Chen out and everyone else besides Tillman a potential health or performance question mark, they need Hammel to, at the very least, give the club innings every fifth day.