The clamor for Orioles top prospect Kevin Gausman began weeks ago, with fans scrutinizing every one of his starts for Double-A Bowie and manager Buck Showalter facing regular questions about when the right-hander would arrive to bolster a faltering rotation.
Gausman arrived in Baltimore on Wednesday, one day ahead of his expected debut in Toronto, to find his new locker at Camden Yards surrounded by eager media members.
It was an experience familiar to several of Gausman’s Orioles teammates.
“I think probably the most overwhelming thing when you get here is that the media is swarming around your locker and the media is asking question after question,” said catcher Matt Wieters, whose 2009 debut caused a downtown traffic jam. “And, as a kid, all you want to do is play baseball. And it can actually make the first game a little bit easier. Because once you get all the hoopla of having to talk about the first game over with, you actually get to go out there and play baseball and do something you’ve done well for a long time.”
Showalter even asked Wieters for pointers on how to handle Gausman’s arrival.
Pitcher Brian Matusz also started his first game for the Orioles the summer after he was the No. 4 overall pick. He also received start-by-start scrutiny as a minor leaguer. But he said he wasn’t acutely aware of the hype swirling around him.
“My focus was just getting better, pitching in the minors to get good enough so I’d have that opportunity,” Matusz recalled. “I really had no idea.”
He said the media swarm didn’t make his first start any harder.
“First major league start, you’re going to be nervous regardless,” he said. “You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t.”
During the club’s long string of losing seasons, prospect call-ups often represented the lone bright spots in summers devoid of optimism. But the stakes are different this time, as they were last year, when the Orioles recalled Manny Machado in the midst of a pennant race.
They need Gausman, 22, to fortify a starting rotation decimated by injuries and disappointing performances. If the Orioles can’t stabilize their pitching, they will likely struggle to fulfill their hopes of again making the postseason from the American League East.
The Machado move instantly improved the club’s defense last season and spurred a memorable stretch run. Can Gausman provide a similar boost?
The Orioles drafted him No. 4 overall out of LSU, fully expecting him to move quickly. But even club officials were surprised at how comfortably Gausman handled major leaguers in spring training. Not only did the lean right-hander routinely hit 95 mph with his fastball, he often mixed in change-ups and hard sliders to keep hitters unsettled.
Gausman entered the season as the club’s No. 2 prospect behind fellow starter Dylan Bundy. But with Bundy sidelined by soreness in his elbow and forearm, Gausman quickly became the top minor leaguer for Orioles fans to follow.
He did not disappoint at Double-A Bowie, posting a 3.11 ERA in 46 1/3 innings, with 49 strikeouts against only five walks.
Both Wieters and Matusz expressed confidence that Gausman can handle the aggressive call-up.
“To me, it’s just about getting him in the mindset to where he can do what he does,” Wieters said. “He has great stuff and I think the most impressive thing about him is how he commands all of his pitches and is able to locate and throw strikes.”
Added Matusz: “Kevin’s a great kid. He’s awesome, joking around and getting along with the guys. And obviously on the field, he has four outstanding pitches. He’s got all the physical make-up, he’s got the character, he’s got everything."