BALTIMORE — Orioles manager Buck Showalter wasn’t ready to commit to a decision, but he had to know the truth following a series-opening 4-2 win over the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays.
Following a second straight quality start and an impressive six-inning performance over another first-place team, 23-year-old right-hander Kevin Gausman deserves to remain in the rotation — at least, for now. Sure, the details might be a little foggy at the moment with Miguel Gonzalez — who turned in four straight quality starts before suffering an oblique strain — slated to return from the 15-day disabled list early next week, but Gausman’s upside is too much to overlook as the Orioles closed the gap to 3 1/2 games in the AL East on Thursday night.
“He’s done what it takes to be considered,” Showalter said. “He’s taking care of his end of it. And the good news for us is we’ve got some other people capable of pitching well, too. … ‘Gaus’ has pitched well in his two outings. I hope he’s starting to grasp what it takes to consistently help this team win.”
Pitching well against average opponents is one thing, but Gausman held Oakland and Toronto — two of the best offenses in the major leagues — to two runs in 13 innings to earn his first two wins as a major league starter. After being selected with the fourth overall pick of the 2012 draft, Gausman is starting to provide major-league substance to go along with the sizzle of a high-90s fastball that caused many to project him as a future ace coming out of Louisiana State University.
Already possessing a plus fastball and an impressive split changeup, Gausman has credited the development of two additional pitches in his repertoire to make himself a more viable option as a major league starter. Those pitches have been on display in his two outings since replacing Gonzalez in the starting rotation last week.
“I didn’t throw a circle change until I got to the big leagues last year, and I think it’s one of my better pitches now,” said Gausman, who relied on the pitch even more than his splitter on Thursday night. “My slider has gotten better as the year has gone on. It’s tremendously better than last year.”
The problem for Showalter is figuring out exactly how to handle his starting rotation. He’s spent the last few days downplaying the discussion of a six-man rotation that started last week before the season-ending Achilles injury suffered by veteran Johan Santana, but that always remains a distinct possibility.
Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris are currently pitching too well to remove from the rotation, and the Orioles remain hopeful that 2013 All-Star selection Chris Tillman will build on his most-recent start against Boston to eventually regain his form from the last two seasons. That leaves right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez and the $50 million contract he signed during spring training.
His 5.01 ERA is the worst among the five starters as Jimenez is coming off his worst start of the season in a disastrous 11-1 loss to Oakland on Sunday. Of course, the Orioles should have known that Jimenez wasn’t a model of consistency when they signed him to a four-year deal but recognized his upside of being able to dominate when his unorthodox mechanics are in check.
Would the organization consider temporarily shifting him to the bullpen or attempt to find a physical concern to put him on the DL to give him time to revamp his mechanics? It’s difficult to say after the Orioles made the biggest long-term commitment to a pitcher in franchise history just a few months ago.
Still, the questions about how to accommodate Gausman should not overshadow what he could bring to the rotation over the final 3 1/2 months of the season as the Orioles try to advance to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. A simple assessment from one of the best hitters in a tough Athletics lineup told everything you need to know about the pitcher’s ability after he held Oakland to one run in seven innings last Saturday night.
That included a dominating sequence in which he struck out Josh Donaldson on an 85 mph splitter and Brandon Moss on a 99 mph fastball to leave runners stranded on second and third in the sixth. It was a big-boy performance in which a starter shows that rare ability to reach a new level late in an outing.
And it left one of the best offenses in the majors thoroughly impressed.
“I got to home plate in my first at-bat and I looked at [the catcher] and said, ‘How is that guy in Triple A?’” said Moss, who has 16 home runs and 53 runs batted in this season. “From what I understand, he’s had some command issues [in the past] and stuff like that. The way he pitched [Saturday] night was the best stuff we’ve seen all year.
“The first at-bat, you could tell he had [velocity], but you never know how that’s going to go. We can adapt to that. But the second and third at-bats, he started to mix in off-speed for strikes and balls and keeping it down. And then he had 99 in the tank when he had to hump up. You’re going to run into guys like that every now and then. We tried to battle.”
The Orioles must use a similar line of thinking with Gausman to what they did upon signing Jimenez to a four-year contract in focusing on the upside. The jury’s still out on whether the Jimenez contract will prove to be a wise one, but the goal of finding a pitcher who can dominate for important stretches of time — such as in a September pennant race or in a tight five- or seven-game series in October — should make it an easy decision to keep Gausman around for now.
If he regresses or proves incapable of building upon what he did against Oakland and Toronto, you can always send him back to Triple-A Norfolk. At the very least, Gausman deserves the chance to prove he doesn’t belong in the majors after these two starts that suggested the very opposite.
Perhaps he can be that missing piece that Showalter wasn’t necessarily depending on at the beginning of the season but will ultimately need. The Orioles manager would certainly take it if Gausman is ready to become that guy.
“Every team, to get where you want to get at the end of the season, the last team standing, if you look back at the characteristics of all of those teams, something that they weren’t particularly counting on appeared on the scene and was a big difference-maker. Kevin has the possibility of being that, but he’s going to need a lot of help.”
First, he needs the chance to do it.