Jason Hammel’s message to himself while he was pitching to a 9.53 ERA in his first four starts with the A’s was simple, if not necessarily so easy. “Honestly,” the right-hander said Sunday, “ ‘Just stay the course.’ ”
While not an ideal way to introduce himself to a new team and fan base, Hammel said he believed his first four winless starts were “a couple bumps and bruises.” The A’s did, too, or they likely wouldn’t have traded for Hammel – acquiring him in the deal that also brought Jeff Samardzija from the Chicago Cubs – or stuck with him during his rough start, with manager Bob Melvin professing belief in Hammel’s “track record.”
That belief has looked much more warranted in Hammel’s past two outings, including his start in the A’s 6-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday. Five days after holding the Tampa Bay Rays scoreless for 52/3 innings, Hammel allowed one run and four hits in 61/3 innings, departing in a 1-1 game before the Twins seized control against the A’s bullpen.
“This is the best he’s pitched – even better than the last time out for me,” Melvin said. “The ball was down in the zone, mix of pitches was good, slider was sharper. After the second (inning), we saw a lot of ground balls, and that’s typically the way he pitches when he’s on.”
Hammel was on for much of the first half in Chicago, compiling a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts for the Cubs before the trade. But upon joining the A’s, the 31-year-old veteran admitted he started “doing amateur-type things,” feeling compelled to prove to the first-place A’s and their fans that their faith in trading for him was justifiable.
“I was trying to do too much, and you can pick up bad habits doing that,” Hammel said. “Front side flying open … trying to throw too hard, trying to make the perfect pitch when you don’t need to. Those unfortunately develop into bad habits, so you have to clear your head and get back to doing what you’ve been doing.”
The issues weren’t merely mechanical. Hammel said he “wanted to get off to a good start (with the A’s), and that didn’t happen, and that can shake your confidence a little bit.” To make matters more difficult, the A’s lost each of his first four starts, while the transitions of Samardzija and, later, Jon Lester were progressing much more smoothly.
That made his start against the Rays on Tuesday key. Melvin said that after that start, “I think (Hammel) just settled in. … You get a good start under your belt and feel a lot more confident and part of it. Then you’re just out there trying to execute pitches.”
In that area, Hammel was much improved Sunday, locating his fastball and slider down in the strike zone. The results were evident after the first inning, in which all four Twins batters hit fly balls, including Brian Dozier’s home run. Of the final 14 outs Hammel recorded, 13 came by ground ball or strikeout.
Sunday, Hammel said he had a “much better” feel for his slider, his typical “out pitch.” In his first few starts, he said, “Everything was up, even my slider. If I can continue to work the ball down in the zone, that’s when I’m at my best. That’s when I’m getting grounders, the two-seam (fastball) is working, and I can pitch off of that.”
Hammel allowed just the one run with an assist from reliever Fernando Abad, who came in with runners on first and third and one out in the seventh. With Jordan Schafer up, the Twins appeared to put on a squeeze play, but Schafer missed the bunt and Eduardo Nunez was tagged out in a rundown.
Abad then struck out Schafer to preserve a 1-1 tie. The left-hander has inherited 21 runners this season and allowed none to score – the most stranded without scoring by any major-league reliever.
The Twins broke the tie, though, in the eighth inning against right-hander Luke Gregerson, who gave up an RBI double to Kurt Suzuki and, two batters later, a two-out, two-run homer to Josh Willingham – both former A’s. They were the first runs given up since June 25 by Gregerson, who had gone 15 consecutive outings without allowing one.
“I don’t know how you can be much better than he’s been for the better part of a month and a half,” Melvin said of Gregerson. “Probably (Sunday) a couple guys sat on a couple pitches and got them.”
The A’s had a 12-game winning streak against Minnesota snapped, their longest against the Twins in franchise history. They finished their 10-game homestand 6-4, and despite the loss, they maintained a four-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West.