BALTIMORE -- In his first start since his first career shutout, Jason Hammel stole the show again. Behind eight dominant innings on Friday night, the 29-year-old fanned a career-high-tying 10 to run his streak of not allowing an earned run to 19 innings.
Hammel has played a starring role in Baltimore's resurgence and, following the Orioles' 2-1 win over the regional-rival Washington Nationals, he had teammates buzzing about his sound case to be another kind of star this summer: an All-Star.
"I voted for him today," said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who made a pair of fantastic leaping grabs in the field and put the O's on top with a fifth-inning RBI double. "He's awesome. He's been really good every start this year, especially the last two. [It's] fun to play behind."
"He makes my job easy because he's got four pitches, which are pretty good, that he can use on any hitter any time," said catcher Matt Wieters, who believes Hammel has definitely made a case for inclusion in baseball's Midsummer Classic. "He's been great for us all year. He's a guy who, getting here, he's really been able to show what kind of pitches he's had."
All four of them were on display against the Nats, as Hammel used pinpoint command -- he didn't issue a walk all evening -- and a heavy dose of fastballs to keep Washington's batters in fits, even after rain delayed the start of the game for 1 hour and 1 minute.
Hammel, who has battled knee soreness for the past month and a half, has benefited from some of the team's off-days and has managed the issue without ever using it as an excuse. His competitiveness, and newfound mental toughness, were born at the end of last season, when he was demoted to the Colorado Rockies bullpen and given a harsh wakeup call.
His career resurgence is a nice success story, and one that could be rewarded with a trip to Kansas City next month. Just don't expect the new Hammel -- who has what manager Buck Showalter calls "a little different look in his eye" on days he starts -- to start campaigning.
"I honestly couldn't care less about that," Hammel said. "I think we have something bigger going on here, as a team."
Indeed, they do. Friday's series-opening win cut the Orioles' deficit in the American League East race to 1 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees and marked the team's 40th victory of the season. By contrast, the O's did not get their 40th win until July 23 of last season, as this year's squad continues to show its resilience, snapping a three-game skid with its third win in four games over the Nats.
A sellout crowd -- the Orioles' fourth this season -- of 45,891 packed Camden Yards to watch Hammel and Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann duel, with Hardy's RBI -- preceded by Mark Reynolds' homer -- the difference.
"He's pretty nasty," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said of Hammel, who lowered his ERA to 2.61 Friday night. "He had everything working. He really had a low pitch count going into the eighth inning. We centered on some balls, but you've got to tip your hat to him. He pitched a heck of a game."
Hammel's lone run came on a fifth-inning error charged to first baseman Reynolds -- his second of the game -- as he fielded a putout throw from Wilson Betemit and tried to throw back to the third baseman to get a hustling Ian Desmond. Instead, Reynolds' throw sailed wide and Desmond -- who had a leadoff single -- scored easily to tie the game at 1.
Reynolds, whose power has left much to be desired this season, sent Zimmermann's 1-1 fastball into the stands in the second inning, marking his fourth homer of the month. Hardy put the O's on top, lining a ball into deep left-center field, scoring Nick Johnson, who was hit by a pitch, for a two-out, go-ahead RBI.
It wasn't exactly the offensive output the Orioles were seeking, coming off a three-game set in New York in which they mustered two runs total, but it was enough with the way Hammel pitched. The closest the Nationals came to mounting a rally was a pair of one-out singles in the seventh, but Hammel struck out Roger Bernadina and induced a liner that a leaping Hardy snagged in impressive fashion.
"The game plays out differently if he doesn't make that play," Hammel said of Hardy, who made another leaping catch to start the eighth. "So hats off, I owe him a steak dinner."
Not if Hardy has any say in it.
Told of Hammel's comment, the O's shortstop responded: "No [he doesn't owe me]. Not at all. We owe him a steak dinner for working fast and pitching the way he's been pitching."
Hammel exited to a stirring ovation from the boisterous crowd, fielding Ryan Zimmerman's sharply hit ball back to the mound to complete a five-pitch eighth inning and put the potential for another complete game on the table. But with his 96 pitches, Showalter opted to go with closer Jim Johnson, who picked up his 21st save in 22 tries and moved into sole possession of second place in the Majors in the process.
Johnson issued a two-out walk to Desmond before making a game-ending snag on Danny Espinosa's liner to put the finishing touches on Hammel's eighth win.
With Selection Sunday just over a week away, Hammel will get one more start to solidify his case. Asked for his opinion, Showalter made it clear that if it were up to him, Hammel would be an All-Star.
"I think he should be a strong consideration," Showalter said. "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."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.