The Orioles' plan all along was to let Kevin Gausman loose in the second half of this season. It took some rigid discipline — limiting his innings and pitch counts earlier this year — in order to preserve him for the stretch run.
It also included some unpopular roster moves as the right-hander shuttled back and forth to the minor leagues. When the Orioles needed an extra relief pitcher, Gausman usually was the player sent to manager Buck Showalter's office to be told he was being optioned.
An outing at Triple-A Norfolk, a bullpen session at Double-A Bowie, a shortened start at short-season Single-A Aberdeen — all with early morning drives between destinations that included plenty of time to think — have been a part of Gausman's 2014 season so far.
As the Orioles come out of the All-Star break atop the American League East and poised for a second-half sprint that they hope leads to their first division title since 1997, Gausman could be the club's top post-All-Star break weapon. As Showalter said over the weekend: "The wrappers are off."
Gausman, 23, is ready to go. He's no longer on any pitch or innings limits. Over the past two months, he has shown that he had the ability to dominate as a starting pitcher in the major leagues, and he's reaping tremendous confidence from a growing but limited track record of success.
"I definitely feel a lot more confident, more confident in myself, more confident in just everything," Gausman said. "I feel great about where I'm at physically, and mentally I feel great, too. There's a lot of things I've been through that some guys might take personally, but that's been something for me, I haven't thought about it that way at all.
"I thought about it as a team. We've got to get those bullpen guys fresh. That's our No. 1 priority. … [The early-season limitations] can be frustrating, but at the same time, I understand it. It's so I can pitch in October if need be."
'He knows he's gonna earn it'
Gausman ended the first half having won four of his last five decisions in the major leagues. He has allowed one run or fewer in five of his last six starts and has a 2.36 ERA in that span.
He will start the Orioles' third game out of the All-Star break, Sunday against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum. Gausman held the Athletics to one run and four hits in seven innings, one of his best starts of the season, on June 7 at Camden Yards.
Three times this year, Gausman has been recalled to make a start and then sent back to the minor leagues within the next 24 hours — once was as the 26th man for a day-night doubleheader June 27, and he had to be returned to the minors immediately — and the shuttling sparked loud criticism from fans who believed he didn't deserve to be sent down.
Ultimately, the Orioles needed to send Gausman down to replenish a bullpen absent of many optionable pitchers. Because Gausman has minor league options and Showalter relies on track record among his other starters, the Orioles believe moving Gausman has been necessary.
"It's not a big rhetorical thing," Showalter said. "It's matter of factly. I know, and we know, the right thing to do. It's not one of those things where you say, 'What do you think?' He'll get an opportunity after the break, and we'll see where it takes us. I'll tell you what, there's five other [starters] here who have a better track record right now. He knows he's gonna earn it."
Showalter said there are no guarantees for Gausman after his start in Oakland on Sunday. The Orioles are brilliant at manipulating their roster, but the fact that Gausman likely will remain one of the easiest players to move back and forth doesn't change after the All-Star break.
"It's tough because you've had some games when he's pitched [exceptionally], and you go, 'Man, oh, man.' But it's also about depth, too," Showalter said. "If you look at the bigger picture, what we're trying to do, we want to keep him healthy No. 1. We want him to take the right jump, and any factor that affects that, we have to stay on top of it.
"Also, we want to keep all six of these guys engaged as possibilities. There's going to be a bunch of guys available during the trade deadline that aren't going to be better than what we have. That's the way I look at it. I like what we have. I like the six [starting pitchers] we have. I think we can do it with them, if they can stay healthy."
'Plus stuff across the board'
Few, if any, starting pitchers available on the trading block this month possess the stuff and the upside that Gausman does. So if he can continue to build on a strong first half, he can play a major role for the Orioles during the rest of the season.
"When you talk about Kevin Gausman, he obviously has plus stuff across the board," Orioles director of player development Brian Graham said. "But he also has the makeup and competitiveness that makes him special. A 96-mph fastball is a lot tougher to hit when you have a slider and changeup that you can throw for strikes. It's a lot more difficult.
"When you have three weapons versus having one, you have a chance to be effective. … The development with any player is a process. It takes time. Time is the biggest factor. Time will answer a lot of your questions. With Kevin, it's just a matter of time and experience."