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MIN@BAL: Hardy's homer puts the Orioles ahead early

BALTIMORE -- Jason Hammel just wanted another chance to prove he could be an effective Major League starter. Traded away as part of the Tampa Bay Rays' almost shameful amount of surplus pitching after the 2008 season, Hammel was moved to the Rockies' bullpen in mid-August before being dealt to the Orioles this winter as part of a trade for right-hander Jeremy Guthrie.

Following his first start this spring, Hammel talked about what his time in the bullpen -- where he made just seven appearances the rest of 2011 -- allowed him to reflect on. He vowed to become a more aggressive pitcher this season, in relying on his strengths over each hitter's weakness.

That newfound confidence -- along with an improved two-seam fastball -- was on full display on Sunday afternoon, as the 29-year-old Hammel dominated the Minnesota Twins, allowing one run over eight innings en route to the Orioles' 3-1 sweep-clinching win.

"What I did in Spring Training, [and] at the end of last year was a huge help," said Hammel, who called Sunday's start the best of his career. "[I] changed my focus on the mound, I was starting to wander, think of the wrong things instead of what I could do. It's really changed my game a lot."

Hammel -- who entered the game with a career 6.28 ERA in three starts at Camden Yards -- followed up two impressive starting performances by Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter by holding the Twins hitless through the first seven innings. Working off a fastball in the 94-95-mph range, Hammel faced the minimum number of batters until a pair of doubles in the eighth cost him a no-hit and shutout bid.

"I thought he had a real good chance [at a no-hitter], because he was real efficient from a pitch-count standpoint," said pitching coach Rick Adair, who worked with Hammel this spring on improving his posture and getting more sink on the two-seamer, which gave the Twins' batters fits. "The type of ground balls he was getting, they were kind of chopped. I thought he had a chance. I was nervous for him."

The possibility of a no-hitter started to creep into Hammel's mind after he got through the sixth. He took the mound in the eighth inning having thrown just 77 pitches, erasing a pair of walks with ensuing double-play balls. The no-hitter ended when Justin Morneau delivered a double into right field, and the shutout was lost when Morneau scored on Josh Willingham's double.

"He threw all his pitches for strikes," Morneau said of Hammel, who got 14 groundouts in the 97-pitch outing. "He had pretty good location with everything. When a guy is doing that, and his fastball is touching is 95 mph, it makes [it] tough."

After allowing the Twins to get a run, Hammel didn't cave in, finishing the inning and picking up two more strikeouts -- he had five total -- en route to becoming the third consecutive Orioles pitcher to go seven or more innings to start the season. Baltimore last accomplished that feat in 2001.

"That's how we're going to have to win," catcher Matt Wieters said. "Starting pitching is what's going to win in this division. And if we keep getting starts like this, we have a good chance."

Hammel exited to a standing ovation from the crowd of 14,738 in favor of closer Jim Johnson, who recorded his second save this season.

Working with a 1-0 lead, the Orioles added a pair of runs in the sixth to give Hammel some breathing room, courtesy of Wilson Betemit's two-run double. The O's put runners on first and second with one out, thanks to Adam Jones' single and Nick Johnson's hit by pitch. The pair pulled off a double steal with reliever Matt Maloney on the hill to set the table for Betemit, who blasted a ball that one-hopped the center-field fence.

"Brian Roberts, the contribution he's made, he's been working with some of our guys, two or three of them, [on] some of the methods that have made him so prolific in stealing bases, and third base," Showalter said. "I swear, if I didn't know better, the way Robby does it, Adam's like a copy of it. Robby had a big smile on his face after the game."

J.J. Hardy got Baltimore on the board with a solo homer in the first inning off Twins starter Anthony Swarzak, a late fill-in after Liam Hendriks' bout of food poisoning on Saturday. Swarzak exited after five innings and was charged with four hits and two walks, while recording one strikeout. Hardy's homer accounted for the only run he allowed in the outing. Comments