The All-Star Game ballots arrived at their lockers before Friday's game against the Nationals, and a few Orioles players needed no time to deliberate whether teammate Jason Hammel deserved their vote.
Whether Hammel's remarkable first half is rewarded with a trip to Kansas City next month will be decided over the coming days, but given the way the right-hander has pitched this season — and especially against National League competition in his last two starts — he's building a strong case.
Hammel has gone from afterthought to ace during the Orioles' surprising first half. And when his team has started to flounder, the 29-year-old has served as an anchor and taken his team on his shoulders. Friday night offered the most recent chapter, as he led the Orioles to a much-needed 2-1 win over the Nationals, snapping a three-game losing streak in front of a sellout crowd of 45,891 at Camden Yards.
Hammel allowed the second-best team in the NL just one unearned run on five hits through eight innings, tying a career-high with 10 strikeouts and walking none.
Hammel has gone 19 innings without allowing an earned run. He also lowered his ERA to 2.61, sixth best in the AL, and became the first Orioles pitcher since 1997 to have back-to-back outings of eight innings or more and not allow an earned run.
"I really think I have a good feel for both sides of the game, mentally and physically right now," Hammel said. "Just coming out and competing. Just throwing at the glove and attacking. Today was my best day, command-wise, with no walks. I hate walking guys. I always focus on getting quick outs, and today we did that."
Coming off being swept by the Mets in New York, Hammel again got the Orioles (40-30) back on track — each of his last three wins have come after an Orioles loss — and brought the O's within 1 ½ games of the division-leading Yankees. In his previous outing Saturday in Atlanta, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and ended with his first complete-game shutout win of his career.
"I think he should be a strong consideration," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Hammel making the All-Star team. "I'm biased. I get to see him pitch every fifth day. I can't imagine a guy having a much better year than he's having."
On Friday night, the 29-year-old continued his mastery through the raindrops, duping the Nationals by mixing up all four of his pitches and frustrating hitters early in the game with his sweeping curveball.
"He had all four tonight, and when he does that, he's going to have real good success," catcher Matt Wieters said. "When you have a curveball and a slider, we can go either one if one's not working. ... Tonight he was able to have all four so we were trying to mix it up as much as we could."
Hammel also continued his dominance against the Nationals, improving his record against Washington to 5-0 with a 3.30 ERA.
"If you don't know already, Hammel is a pretty unbelievable pitcher," Nats shortstop Ian Desmoid said. "He's an ace, probably one of the better pitchers we've seen this year. He's got three quality pitches and a 96-mph sinker."
Off days have allowed Hammel — and his balky right knee — an extra day of rest in his last two starts, which he said has been critical to extending his outings.
"It's huge, especially for the knee, especially in the heat," Hammel said. "Tonight was definitely sticky and tiring. And it was something I've never played with. I've never played in this kind of climate. It's nice to be able to just go out and continue to get deep into games."
Mark Reynolds crushed a 1-1 delivery from Washington starter Jordan Zimmermann into the left-field stands for a solo homer with two outs in the second inning, giving the Orioles a 1-0 lead.
After Reynolds' second error of the night allowed the Nationals to tie the game in the fifth, J.J. Hardy, who was 2-for-24 on the team's road trip, delivered a two-out double to left-center in the fifth, scoring Nick Johnson from third and giving the Orioles the lead.
Hammel (8-2) overcame his biggest threat in the seventh. The Nats hit back-to-back one-out singles off him, but Hammel struck out Bernadina and Hardy made a great leaping catch Jesus Flores' high line drive at shortstop.
When Hammel came off the field for the final time Friday night, after snagging a comebacker off Ryan Zimmerman's bat for the third out in the eighth, he received a standing ovation from the crowd. Jim Johnson converted his 21st save after a two-out walk in the ninth, snagging a comebacker from Espinosa.
In the Orioles clubhouse after the game, the talk was all about Hammel — and how he deserved to trip to the All-Star Game.
"Definitely," Hardy said. "I voted for him today. … He's awesome. He's been really good every start this year, especially the last two. [He's] fun to play behind."