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BALTIMORE — Contrary to what many will say following Kevin Gausman’s home debut in a 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers Sunday, his six strong innings against a powerful lineup don’t yet prove the Orioles’ decision to promote him after eight Double-A starts was the right one.
In the same way, definitive proclamations that the Orioles had made a mistake calling up the 2012 first-round pick after an 11.00 earned run average in his first two starts were premature with Gausman just getting his feet wet in the big leagues.
But Sunday’s outing against arguably the best offense in the major leagues showed the kind of talent that had the Orioles so giddy and willing to see if he could help their winning cause despite the 22-year-old still being in the midst of his first full professional season. A day after the Tigers pounced on Jason Hammel and the Orioles bullpen for five homers and 10 runs, Gausman held Detroit to just one earned run and five hits for the first quality start of his career.
“I felt comfortable,” said Gausman, who credited a bullpen session with pitching coach Rick Adair in which they tinkered with his mechanics and focused on keeping the ball down in the strike zone as the main reason for the turnaround. “Today was probably the most polished and calm I’ve been out there since I’ve been up.”
In addition to not walking a batter over six innings, Gausman recorded 12 ground-ball outs including two double plays induced with Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera at the plate. Working with a fastball consistently hitting 95 miles per hour for most of the afternoon, Gausman found another gear in his final inning of work when he threw several sinking fastballs clocked at 97 against Cabrera, retiring the 2012 Triple Crown winner on a called strike three to end his day after six.
It was all part of his revised plan after pitching up in the zone far too often in his first two starts, especially against Washington when he surrendered three home runs.
“Get on top more, have more of a downward plane on my ball, and get back to getting ground-ball outs,” Gausman said. “That was something big for me. It’s huge to get ground balls, double plays, and quick innings.”
The early concerns about Gausman weren’t eliminated entirely with the strong performance as the right-hander only had four strikeouts and seven swinging strikes over the course of the outing. His slider was improved from his first two starts but remains more of a novelty than the impact breaking pitch needed to go along with an exceptional fastball-change combination.
Gausman appeared to be heading toward a shorter outing early in the game as Tigers hitters continued to foul off pitches and work deep counts at an alarming rate despite the rookie facing the minimum number of hitters over his first two innings. In the second, a nine-pitch at-bat that resulted in a swinging strikeout of Prince Fielder and a eight-pitch battle with Jhonny Peralta that ended with a groundout contributed to Gausman’s pitch count standing at 42 after two frames.
You can certainly argue that Gausman’s command was so good that hitters weren’t able to do much damage aside from Fielder’s solo home run in the fourth, but he still appears to lack that put-away pitch necessary for collecting strikeouts and keeping his pitch count a bit lower in those situations. The power pitcher has only nine strikeouts in his 15 innings of work in the majors after striking out 49 in 46 1/3 innings at Double-A Bowie.
However, it would be difficult to dispute that Gausman got stronger as the game went on, evident by his increased velocity and two strikeouts in his final inning of work. He retired the final six batters he faced before turning the game over to the bullpen for the seventh inning.
“I look at the positive side that his stuff was so good that they fouled a lot of balls off,” manager Buck Showalter said. “You go back through how many fouls balls there that they couldn’t quite square him up. You can tell by body language of the other team. I say a lot of times, they’ll tell us how he’s doing. You can tell by the body language.”
Showalter said in the aftermath of Gausman’s poor showing against the Nationals last week that you can’t hide it for long if you’re good enough to play in the big leagues and the rookie rewarded the Orioles’ confidence by bouncing back against a lineup known for crippling opposing pitchers. The manager credited the Louisiana State product’s confidence and reminded us once again that what Gausman lacks in professional experience is complemented by his time pitching in the highly-competitive Southeastern Conference.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Gausman is ready to swim at this level and the talk of him being sent back to the minors is gone for good, but Sunday showed more than enough to see why the Orioles and talent evaluators are so high on the 6-foot-3 pitcher.
An uneven major league debut against Toronto and an ugly start against the Nationals weren’t going to change their opinion that easily.
“He’s talented — that’s the thing,” Showalter said. “As much as you talk about a lot of other factors that affect guys, he’s talented. He’s got a good hand, which allows him to do some things with the baseball. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”
His six innings of work not only gave the Orioles a chance to stage a late comeback with a three-run seventh inning but prevented a repeat of Saturday’s blowout in which the bullpen needed to work six innings following Hammel’s ejection.
It was a critical factor in the Orioles’ series win over the defending American League champions and sent them to Monday’s off-day at seven games above .500 as they begin a six-game road trip. Perhaps even more exciting about the outing was the glimpse at what the future may hold as the Gausman experiment continues for at least another start or two.
“I just tried to put my team in position to win,” Gausman said. “I just tried to keep the ball down. This was a big series win for us.”
It sounds so simple, but Gausman gave the Orioles everything they could have reasonably asked for on Sunday.
Now, the challenge will be doing it again the next time out.