Whether Kevin Gausman's strong start Thursday night, in which he shut down a Toronto Blue Jays team with one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball, solidified him a place in the Orioles starting rotation remains to be seen.
But he has made it difficult for the club to do otherwise.
Gausman held Toronto to just one run and five hits in six innings as the Orioles took the opener of their four-game series against the American League East-leading Blue Jays, 4-2, in front of an announced 17,403 at Camden Yards.
"He's done what it takes to be considered,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He's taking care of his end of it. … [Could've been] a little more efficient with some pitches, but he's facing a real good team there offensively, so it's hard to do that. You can't just ask them to make outs early in the count. They're not very cooperative."
In two starts since being recalled from Triple-A Norfolk, Gausman has handcuffed two of baseball's best lineups, allowing just two runs in 13 innings, recording quality starts in both outings.
"His last two outings have been probably the best in baseball," right fielder Nick Markakis said of Gausman. "He's really come a long way since the first time he's been up here."
Gausman, the Orioles' 2012 first-round pick and current No. 2 prospect, according to Baseball America, made it nearly impossible for the team to send him back to the minors.
“I felt good about what I've done,” Gausman said. “I feel comfortable right now and … that's not my decision. Whatever happens is going to be for the club's best interest.”
With right-hander Miguel Gonzalez nearly ready to come off the disabled list and Showalter having pondered the idea of a six-man rotation, it's a good problem to have.
“The good news for us is we've got some other people capable of pitching well, too. Miggy was throwing the ball well before he got hurt, so that bodes well," Showalter said. "We'll see how everybody feels the next day or two and take a look and see where we are. But I was hoping it would be an outcome similar. Gaus, he's pitched well in his two outings. Just hope he's starting to grasp what it takes to consistently help this team win."
Gausman gave the Orioles’ their fourth straight quality start. The Orioles’ beleaguered rotation -- the starters' 4.37 ERA heading into Thursday ranked 11th in the AL -- has suddenly caught steam. They've allowed just two runs in their last 27 innings over four games (0.67 ERA). Orioles starting pitchers have allowed two or fewer runs in 11 of the last 14 games.
“I think we always try to one-up each other,” Gausman said. “I wanted to go nine, [throw a shutout] tonight. It's great, and I think we're just kind of finding our rhythm right now.”
Meanwhile, the Orioles (34-31) have won three of their last four and outscored their opponents, 14-3, in that span. And with the win, the Orioles are 3 1/2 games back of the Blue Jays (39-29), who have lost five of their last six, for the division lead.
“We knew coming into this, the whole homestand was big for us, especially finishing up a homestand with four games with the guys you are trailing.” said right fielder Nick Markakis, who passed Brian Roberts for sole possession of seventh place on the Orioles all-time hit list (1,453) with two hits Thursday. “Every game from here on out counts. And we did a good job getting Game 1. That was our main objective.”
Gausman (2-1) wasn't as dominating as he was in his last outing -- he held the Oakland Athletics to one run in seven innings Saturday. But much like he did in that game, he used his breaking ball and offspeed pitches well to keep hitters off his high-90s fastball against a Toronto team that leads the AL in home runs and is second in runs scored.
He threw just one of his circle-changeups in his last outing against Oakland, but relied on it against the Blue Jays to keep them off balance Thursday night.
“I threw a lot of fastballs in, especially to their big hitters in the middle of the lineup,” Gausman said. “That was something I wanted to do, and that's what I did against the A's, too. Tonight, I felt like my circle-change was better than my split tonight. That's just one of those things where you have to find what works for you.”
Gausman's first major league start came against the Blue Jays on May 23, 2013, and he faced them three times in relief, so he was familiar with the Toronto lineup.
“I thought it kind of helped that I had faced them before,” Gausman said. “I knew what they looked like in the box. I pitched well against them coming in in relief last year. That was definitely something that helped my confidence going in there.”
The Orioles took an early 3-0 lead on Toronto left-hander Mark Buehrle, who entered the night having allowed more than two earned runs just two times in 13 previous starts.
Designated hitter Delmon Young -- making just his second start since May 24 -- put the Orioles up, 2-0, two batters into the bottom of the first inning with his second homer of the season, a two-run shot to left that came on a 1-0 changeup from Buehrle.
Young, who faced Buehrle often when he played for the Minnesota Twins and Buehrle was with the Chicago White Sox, has a .396 career average (19-for-48) against the left-hander with four homers and eight RBIs.
“A lot of guys had at-bats against him, so you had an idea of how he wants to throw against you,” Young said. “It’s just when he’s going well, he’s getting you to expand the zone and work past your tempo. Today we did a good job of having good at-bats and laying off some pitches, and when we got a pitch we could drive, guys put a good swing on it.”
Right before Young's homer, Nick Markakis opened the inning with a single, lifting his average in the first inning this season to .413 (26-for-63).
Struggling third baseman Manny Machado hit a leadoff double off the right-field wall in the second inning, snapping an 0-for-18 slump.
Two batters later, after Jonathan Schoop's sacrifice bunt moved Machado to third base, No. 9 hitter Caleb Joseph singled to left to drive him in and give the Orioles a 3-0 lead.
The Blue Jays scored their only run off Gausman in the fifth on Melky Cabrera's two-out single up the middle, snapping the Orioles' 19-inning scoreless streak. Juan Francisco, who opened the frame with a double to end the Orioles' 23-inning streak without having allowed an extra-base hit, scored on the play.
Markakis' RBI double off the right-field scoreboard in the seventh inning put the Orioles up 4-1 as he passed Roberts on the team's all-time hits list.
“That's pretty cool, huh?” Showalter said. “I'm not surprised. One, he's stayed in one place for a long time and two ... when you're using words to describe Nick, he's just a dependable, consistent guy in more ways than one.”
The four runs Buehrle (10-3) allowed were the second-most he has given up this season. He allowed seven runs -- six earned -- against the Boston Red Sox on April 25.
Left-hander Brian Matusz tossed a perfect seventh, striking out the first two batters he faced. Right-hander Ryan Webb allowed a run in the eighth when Jose Bautista doubled to left, stole third and scored on a groundout by Encarnacion.
Closer Zach Britton converted his sixth save in seven opportunities with a scoreless ninth inning. Britton allowed a one-out infield single to former Orioles infielder Steve Tolleson, but induced a game-ending double-play ball from Darin Mastroianni.
The Orioles kept Gausman on meticulous pitch and innings limits over the season’s first two months so they can preserve him for September and beyond. But Gausman has recorded his highest two pitch totals of his professional career in his last two starts. He threw 101 pitches Thursday after throwing 102 against Oakland on Saturday.
“Since spring training, we were hoping the process would take it where it is now, where that's option there,” Showalter said. “He's in fine shape innings-wise now. There's not a limit, but I'll still continue to monitor it with the pitches.”
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