Kevin Gausman gives the Orioles options

In his first Major League start of the season, Kevin Gausman was at times dominating and at times maddening. The Baltimore Orioles’ right-handed prospect – because with only 26 career starts to his name, that’s exactly what Gausman remains – lasted five innings in this afternoon’s 5-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. The first two innings were rough, to say the least, as Gausman struggled with his command and showed visible disdain for home plate umpire Gabe Morales’s strike zone.

The Blue Jays tagged Gausman for single runs in each of the first two innings and he allowed three hits, a walk, and a hit batter in the process. He also allowed one of his runs to score on a slider that bounced a foot in front of the plate and could not be corralled by Caleb Joseph. The Blue Jays very nearly broke the game open in the second, as Gausman had runners on first and third with no outs.

What came next is exactly why Orioles fans have high hopes for their 2012 first round pick. With men on the corners and no outs, Gausman induced three consecutive weak infield popups, escaping without allowing further damage. With that out of the way, Gausman settled in nicely for three more innings to complete his longest outing of the year. He allowed only one hit over the final three innings, a single to Josh Donaldson in the bottom of the 5th, the only Toronto batter to reach base in that span.

The first two innings aside, Kevin Gausman gave the Orioles every reason to believe he has the potential to be the future ace of the staff. His fastball topped out at 98 MPH, although that could be attributed to adrenaline early in the game, and sat consistently at 96 before dipping to 94 as he approached 100 pitches in the fifth inning. When kept down in the zone, his fastball was untouchable. The split-change that Gausman threw infrequently appears to have the makings of a strikeout pitch when located properly.

There is still much work to be done for the 24 year-old now in his third Major League season. Gausman is still nearly entirely reliant upon his fastball, which may be a consequence of working out of the bullpen early on this season. He did not have command of his slider in this game, and needs to throw his split change more frequently to get strikeouts. While his fastball can be overpowering, it does not generate strikeouts, and hitters are able to foul it off with two strikes to prolong at-bats and drive up his pitch count. Adding a two-seam or cut fastball to his repertoire, combined with increased confidence in his breaking pitches could turn the eight and nine-pitch at-bats Gausman frequently labors through into strikeouts.

The Orioles chose to start the season with Gausman in their bullpen after Ubaldo Jimenez won the fifth starter job in Spring Training. Jimenez has continued to excel in the regular season. The Orioles, however, have had to do with the struggles of Bud Norris, who went 15-8 last season, and shut down the Detroit Tigers to close out the ALDS. Norris did not pitch well in Spring Training, and his 7.57 ERA in nine starts so far this season may see him forced out of the rotation in the same way Jimenez was a year ago.

When Jimenez was shunted off to the bullpen last July, it was Gausman who capitalized. He appears ready to assume the starter’s role again this year should Norris continue to falter. His start in Toronto should inspire confidence going forward. Called upon in a pinch for his longest outing of the season, against the American League’s hottest hitting team, Gausman performed better than anyone could have expected. Most impressively, he did not fold in the second inning with the pressure on as Mike Wright did a night earlier. The three weak popups he induced were the mark of an ace.

The Orioles are right in the thick of things in a weakened American League East division with a 35-33 record, but they cannot expect to continue to contend moving forward with a struggling Norris. If he continues to struggle, Kevin Gausman should be called upon to take his place. He proved today that being shuttled between the rotation and the bullpen will not affect his performance. Yes, there is still work to do before Gausman can be labelled the ace of the Orioles, but he is ready and waiting if the team needs him.

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