Jason Hammel's emergence as the Baltimore Orioles' best starting pitcher played a big role in the team's surprising success last season.
This year, they've managed to stay near the top of their division despite a far less effective Hammel.
The Orioles hope their struggling right-hander can get back on track Friday night when they open a three-game set against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays.
Hammel (5-1, 4.93 ERA) was Baltimore's most consistent starter in 2012 despite winning only eight games. He missed nearly two months due to knee surgery but returned in time to pitch very well in two postseason starts.
The team leader in wins this season, Hammel's record is very deceiving. He's posted quality starts in only three of his eight outings and none in his last three. Hammel has won three straight decisions in a four-start span despite a 5.14 ERA, giving up 27 hits and 10 walks over 21 innings in those games.
He lasted a season-low four-plus innings at Minnesota on Friday after yielding six runs and eight hits. Hammel was taken off the hook for the loss when the Orioles overcame a six-run deficit for a 9-6 victory.
"Obviously it's frustrating," Hammel told the team's official website. "Sooner or later it'll become easy, I've just got to keep putting in the hard work and trusting, and being confident in what I do."
One of Hammel's better starts came against his former team on opening day, when he limited the Rays to three runs and three hits over six innings in a 7-4 victory.
Chris Davis hit a three-run homer in that game, the first of his 10 hits in 21 at-bats this season against Tampa Bay (20-20). Baltimore's first baseman has three homers and 12 of his 37 RBIs in six games versus the Rays, and is 8 for 18 with a home run and two doubles off scheduled starter Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 5.25).
Davis, though, was held without an RBI as the Orioles (23-17) were swept by San Diego in a two-game series, falling 8-4 Wednesday. They went 3 for 12 with runners in scoring position, stranded 10 and twice grounded into inning-ending double plays.
Manny Machado was again a bright spot, matching a career high with four hits. Machado, tied for the major league lead with 59 hits, has at least three in four of his last five games and is batting .560 (14 of 25) in that span.
The Rays dropped their second straight following a season-best six-game win streak, losing 4-3 to Boston on Thursday after closer Fernando Rodney gave up three runs in the ninth.
''We had a good chance to take that series and that's a series you definitely want to win,'' starting pitcher Alex Cobb said. ''New York lost again tonight so it would have been really nice to gain some ground there.''
James Loney grounded out with two on for the final out to complete an 0-for-4 night. Loney, who leads the majors with a .367 average, is 8 for 16 with a homer and six RBIs against the Orioles this year.
Hellickson, meanwhile, is out to earn his first win in nearly a month.
The right-hander allowed a season-high six runs over 6 2-3 innings against the Padres on Saturday but escaped without a decision in an 8-7 win. Hellickson gave up a two-run homer in the first inning and retired 16 straight at one point before surrendering Jesus Guzman's pinch-hit grand slam in the seventh.
He's pitched with a lead in four consecutive starts and has not won any of them.
Hellickson is 6-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 12 starts against the Orioles.
Tampa Bay has lost six of seven at Camden Yards.