Jason Hammel didn’t begin the scoreboard watching until the end of the sixth inning Sunday afternoon. The right-hander took his seat in the Orioles dugout and thought to himself how quickly his first start of the season was going.
He had thrown just 65 pitches through those six innings. He was making quick work of the Minnesota Twins with a bevy of ground-ball outs. His teammates started inching away from him on the bench.
"After a while you kind of realize, ‘Man, we're moving along here pretty quick. What's going on?'" Hammel said.
The 29-year-old watched as right-handers Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter opened the season with back-to-back sparkling starts — both beginning their outings with seven scoreless innings — setting a tough act for Hammel to follow in Sunday’s series finale at Camden Yards.
Hammel did one better in his Orioles debut. He flirted with history, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before settling for an eight-inning, two-hit gem in the Orioles’ 3-1 win over the Twins, completing a series sweep.
Hammel was six outs shy of becoming the first Oriole pitcher to throw a no-hitter in Camden Yards history — Boston’s Hideo Nomo threw the ballpark’s only no-hitter just more than 11 years ago — when Minnesota designated hitter Justin Morneau led off the eighth inning with a double to right.
Afterward, Hammel said it was undoubtedly the best game of his six-year big-league career.
“I'll take this any day of the week,” Hammel said. “I haven't been much better than that. I can still be better with my command. The two-seamer is just something I started using again in spring training. It got me behind in counts today, but I was able to battle back and get quick outs after that.”
It was that two-seamer — resurrected this spring — that befuddled Twins hitters all afternoon. Hammel faced the minimum amount of hitters through seven innings, with second- and fifth-inning walks erased by double-play balls.
Hammel forced 14 ground-ball outs (including those two double-plays) and just three fly-ball outs.
“We never really got to him,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Hammel, acquired just 10 days before the beginning of spring training in the trade that send former No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies, shelved his two-seamer when he couldn’t get any movement from it in Denver’s thin air. But this spring, Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair brought it back.
“He said, 'I bet I can get you to throw it,’“ Hammel said. “It was something I could run with now. It was huge. Keeps pitch count down, gets quick innings.”
Seven weeks ago, when Hammel arrived at spring training, the Orioles knew little about what they had in him, but since then they’re happy with what they’ve seen.
“Guys are getting in shape [in the spring], so you really don’t know what they’re about,” Adair said. “He’s gotten the ability to get on top of the ball a little bit easier now. Going to the two-seamer after everything else he’s done, it worked out, so he’s pretty excited about it.”
And Sunday was an exclamation point.
“In spring training, you could tell he’s got good stuff and you’re always constantly working on things and trying to work different sequences in the spring,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “And once you get to the games, you’re trying to call to the hitter, and he did a great job of pitching to his strengths and getting a lot of ground balls.”
Following Morneau’s double, which was pulled down the right-field line and hit the wall on one bounce, Hammel received a standing ovation from the Easter Sunday crowd of 14,738. Hammel lost his shutout bit when the next batter, Josh Willingham, laced another double down the left-field line to score Morneau.
“He threw the ball well today,” Morneau said. “He threw all his pitches for strikes. He had pretty good location with everything. When a guy is doing that, and his fastball is touching is 95 mph, it makes his tough.”
With reliever Kevin Gregg warming up in the bullpen, Orioles manager Showalter stuck with Hammel, who struck out two batters — including Twins rightfielder Ben Revere looking on a nasty curveball — to get out of the inning.
“It was more than just the sinker,” Showalter said. “He had good command of all his pitches. Probably the most impressive thing about today was after he gave up the no-hitter and got in a little bind there, a lot of people pull the dirt in around them. It was probably the most impressive thing today.”
The Orioles had more than enough offense thanks to shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Wilson Betemit. Hardy opened the scoring in the first by jumping on a 2-1 fastball from Twins starter Anthony Swarzak for a solo homer.
Betemit added a two-run double to straight-away center field in the sixth off reliever Matt Maloney. Betemit’s hit came just after Adam Jones and Nick Johnson combined for a double steal.
Closer Jim Johnson converted his 10th consecutive save opportunity dating back to last season by retiring the Twins in order in the ninth.
The win gave the Orioles their first 3-0 start in consecutive seasons since the 1996 and 1997, the last ones before the club’s current string of 14 straight losing seasons.
Granted, the sweep came against a Twins team that scored the second-fewest runs in the American League last season. But the way the Orioles’ starting pitchers performed over the weekend built optimism.
“I think we're pushing each other,” Hammel said. “It's something we've needed, and obviously, you win with starting pitching. Obviously, a run here and there is helpful, but getting deep in the ballgame helps the bullpen be rested for later in the year. Just coming out and attacking. We're showing what we're going to do and we proved that.”