Maybe not officially, but right-hander Kevin Gausman had always been the leading candidate to be the Orioles’ Opening Day starter ever since it became clear that lingering shoulder soreness would force right-hander Chris Tillman to open the season on the disabled list early in spring training.
Even Gausman had begun looking at a calendar to see if he was in line to start the Orioles’ season opener on April 3 against the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards. So when manager Buck Showalter summoned Gausman to his office on Saturday to make the assignment official, Gausman revealed he had been piecing it together in recent days.
“I was like, ‘I’m not that bad at math. I can figure that out,’" Gausman deadpanned.
“But you never know,” he said. “You can never try to figure out what happens before it happens. I didn’t want to get myself too amped up about it and be disappointed. I think it’s pretty special. There’s not many people who can say they’ve started Opening Day, so I’m very happy.”
With the assignment, Gausman takes another step on the ladder to his building resume of successes as the emerging ace the Orioles believe he can become. Gausman’s strong second half made him the unquestioned leader to take the ball on Opening Day, and the workmanlike way he went about his preparation for this season in spring training – this is Gausman’s fifth big league camp – emphasized to Showalter that he was ready.
“I’ve had some guys to pick from, I just thought Kevin was best equipped in a lot of different areas,” Showalter said. “Your No. 1 starter is the guy who is pitching that night. … They’re all ready. No. 1, productionwise, we think Kevin is a guy who can help us put our best foot forward. … He’s primed to be as good as he’s capable of being this year and we want to take advantage of that.”
Showalter also announced that right-hander Dylan Bundy, who will be in the Opening Day starting rotation for the first time after starting last year as a reliever, will start the team’s second game on Wednesday against Toronto.
That the Orioles will start Gausman and Bundy – their top two prized young arms -- in the season’s first two games is not only an indicator that they’ve graduated beyond the careful restrictions placed on them earlier in their careers, but also offers a closer glimpse of the front line of the Orioles’ starting rotation of the future.
“They’ve got him pitching the second day, really his second year in the big leagues and he’s starting the second game of the season,” Gausman said of Bundy. "That’s pretty cool, and we talked about it a little bit. We’re both pretty pumped.”
Showalter will wait until after left-hander Wade Miley’s final spring start on Tuesday against the Braves to ensure he’s physically ready before deciding whether he or right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez will start the team’s third game. He could play matchups with three off days in the first eight days of the season as well as the new 10-day disabled list that would allow him to bring a starter back on April 9. The Orioles also don’t need a fifth starter until April 15, which would allow them to keep an extra position player for that time.
After spending most of his previous four years being developed meticulously – Gausman shuttled between the majors and minors and initially built up his innings in the bullpen – Gausman received his first opportunity last year to be a major league starter for an entire season with no restrictions.
Despite not making his first start until three weeks into the season – he opened the year on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis – Gausman still posted 30 starts and 179 2/3 innings, both team and individual career highs, while also leading all Orioles starters with a 3.61 ERA, a 3.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 4.2 wins above replacement (WAR).
“He’s got a feel for when to charge and when not to charge, when to slow guys down, when not to slow guys down,” Showalter said. “He’s more of a complete pitcher than a guy who was [just] 97-98 [mph]. You see him go get it when he needs it. He, not paces himself, but looks at a start as hopefully a long one and he uses his bullets appropriately.
“He’s got a good feel for the big leagues, as opposed to when he came in. He could be overpowering sometimes, but up here guys turn around your best fastball,” Showalter said. “I think he’s learned a lot about how to pitch when he’s not carrying his best stuff. He’s a trustworthy guy now.”
Gausman won just one of his first seven decisions despite posting a respectable 4.05 ERA in his first 16 starts, but he was unquestionably the Orioles’ top starter in the season’s final two months, posting eight quality starts in his last 12 appearances and a 2.83 ERA while averaging 6 1/3 innings a start.
“The biggest thing I did in the second half was getting deep into games,” Gausman said. “As a starter, that’s really all you can try to do. I felt like I was more consistent like that in the second half and just kind of feel like I hit the ground running this year. I felt good in the spring. I’ve been throwing the ball well, throwing a lot of strikes. I’m happy with where I’m at right now.”
Gausman said that earning the trust of his manager to start the team’s first game is something he doesn’t take for granted.
“I think that’s the biggest thing you want,” Gausman said. “You want your manager to have trust in you and really you want everybody on the field to have trust in you. I think that’s one thing you notice when Tilly pitches, the team behind him feels very confident and trusts that he’s going to pitch a great game every fifth day, so that’s obviously huge praise coming from him. I’m just looking to continue to grow and be more consistent.”
Gausman has pitched to a 1.80 ERA in three Grapefruit League starts, including five shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers on March 19 at Ed Smith Stadium. Focusing on getting his pitch count up, Gausman struggled in his last outing, three of his five innings ending because of pitch count in a minor league game against the Twins’ Triple-A team.
Showalter said he’s seen Gausman carry over his success into a strong spring training this year.
“That’s what you look for, guys like him, guys like Dylan, guys like Donnie Hart, guys who kind of came on the scene, Mychal Givens,” Showalter said. “Are they continuing to grow? Are they taking the experiences they’ve had and using them. There’s a certain calmness and tempo to their workouts, to everything. You can tell they’re moving to the finish line. You can tell most importantly they know what’s ahead of them. They’re not going to be surprised by something.”
Tillman – who likely won’t return until May at the earliest – had started three straight Opening Day games for the Orioles and was closing in on Hall of Famer Jim Palmer’s club record for consecutive Opening Day starts with four. Gausman deferred to Tillman on Monday, saying he knows Tillman would start the opener had he been healthy.
“That’s one thing about it,” Gausman said. “If Chris is healthy right now, it’s his game to start.”
Still, that won’t take away from Gausman embracing the moment of starting Opening Day at Camden Yards in front of a sold-out crowd, officially starting another season with his first pitch.
“I think I’ll be pretty amped up,” he said. "It will probably be the hardest I’ve thrown since last year. I’ll tell you that. That’s one of those things that you kind of have to feed off it. It’s Opening Day … and sometimes in the regular season you have to calm yourself down, but on Opening Day, throw all your cards on the table and here we go.
“I know it’s going to be awesome,” he added. “I love pitching in Baltimore. I’m happy that it’s at home. Hopefully, [it is] the first of many [Opening Day starts], but it’s pretty exciting and I’m definitely looking forward to it.”