A talented young pitcher rarely becomes an ace overnight.
It’s often an organic process including some bumps along the road and requiring patience.
The Orioles and their fans have waited a couple years for Kevin Gausman to take that step from solid starting pitcher to something special. For the better part of the last six weeks, he had pitched a lot like a No. 1 starter, but the eighth inning of Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over Boston sure felt like the “aha” moment of his young career.
Having already thrown 104 pitches over seven superb innings, the right-hander returned to the Fenway Park mound and was a batter away from facing the top of the order for a fourth time. Manager Buck Showalter’s decision to send the 25-year-old back out there against the best lineup in baseball in a one-run game appeared to be debatable — at least on paper.
It really wasn’t as Gausman pitched a 1-2-3 eighth.
His 120th and final pitch of the night was his second fastest at 98.5 miles per hour as Xander Bogaerts fouled out to retire the side. It came after he’d touched 98.8 just three pitches earlier.
Talk about saving your best for last in a game where the stakes couldn’t have been much higher in mid-September. It was the stuff of top-of-the-rotation starters, frankly.
We’ve been so conditioned that even when the Orioles receive a good outing from their maligned rotation, you’re waiting for that moment to hand it over to a bullpen that’s been the backbone of their success out of necessity over the last five years. But after watching Gausman shut down an imposing Red Sox lineup all night, there was no one else you wanted pitching in that tight game other than All-Star closer Zach Britton and even that might have been an interesting debate had the starter’s pitch count been lower after eight innings.
He was that good.
His fastball command was impeccable as he threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 29 hitters he faced, something that’s been a challenge for him this year. He effectively threw his split-changeup and once again mixed in an improved breaking ball, the pitch that’s held him back for most of his career. Boston squared up a couple balls early in the game, but the 2012 first-round pick got stronger and induced mostly weak contact as the game continued.
Since a disastrous July 29 outing in Toronto in which he allowed three home runs to the first five hitters of the game and gave up six runs over three innings, Gausman has pitched to a 2.06 ERA over nine starts covering 56 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 62 batters and allowed just four home runs over that stretch.
Better days ahead!! Back at it tomorrow and I promise I'll be better!!! Stick with us #Birdland
— Kevin Gausman (@KevinGausman) July 30, 2016
He lowered his season ERA to 3.43 in winning his fifth straight decision.
The surge has come at a time when the Orioles needed it most with veteran starter Chris Tillman missing most of the last month with a shoulder injury.
Wednesday wasn’t a playoff game, but it sure felt like October baseball with Gausman pitching on the road like an ace against a right-handed-heavy lineup that hit him hard twice earlier this year. It was the best and most important start of his career and the exclamation point on a strong 6-3 road trip that moved the Orioles to just one game out of first place in the American League East as they return to Camden Yards to begin an 11-game homestand on Thursday.
We’ll see how the final 17 games of the regular season play out in a tremendous division race.
But Wednesday was one hell of a statement from the Orioles.
And perhaps the clearest signal yet of an ace having finally arrived.