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."
Gausman had a rough introduction to the major leagues last season, starting off 0-3 with a 7.66 ERA in his first five starts.
But after moving to the bullpen in two stints with the club later in the year, Gausman made the necessary adjustments to succeed. Over his final seven appearances in 2013 — all in relief — Gausman posted a 2.35 ERA with 13 strikeouts and one walk.
"I always tell people that's where I learned how to pitch, coming out of the bullpen last year," Gausman said. "That's where I really learned, 'Hey, I can compete at this level, and then at times, I can dominate at this level.' I think you have to go through that once every year, just to know my stuff belongs here and I belong here."
"That's where I felt I learned how to pitch at this level and really from Day One of spring training, that's what I wanted to take into starting — kind of having more of that reliever mentality, going at guys, being aggressive, just kind of being a bulldog on the mound."
Back as a starter to open this season, Gausman was limited to 75 pitches in the first month. He didn't throw more than 93 in any of his first 11 starts — including one major league spot start — before he threw 102 against Oakland in June. He threw a career-high 111 on June 18 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
On the mound, Gausman has displayed better fastball command. His slider is tighter, and he hasn't had to depend on it as much as he did last season to keep opponents honest.
Instead, he has relied on his split-finger changeup — using it twice as often compared to last season — to keep hitters off balance. He also has incorporated a circle changeup that he began throwing when he first arrived in the majors in 2013.
"I think it gives you confidence the first time when you get into that seventh inning," Gausman said. "The first time as a starter, and you get through that seventh, and you haven't hurt yourself at all, that's when you really know, 'OK, I can do this.' I think it's also about slowing down the game.
"Back-to-back doubles can happen so fast at this level that you've got to be able to put it aside and take a deep breath and really slowing down the game. That's what people say when they first get up is that the game is so fast and speeds up on them. I definitely noticed that last year, so slowing it down has definitely helped out a lot."
'I like being around here'
That has been the biggest difference between Gausman as a starter in each of the past two seasons.
Gausman loaded the bases three batters into his start at Tampa Bay on June 18, but he struck out James Loney and Ben Zobrist before getting an inning-ending flyout by David DeJesus. He finished with six shutout innings in that game. And then July 6 against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, he stranded runners at second and third bases with one out in the fourth inning, striking out Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew to end the threat.
"Sometimes guys who are elite players, they're able to twist that pressure and turn it into adrenaline. They turn it into a positive, and they are able to reach back and hit another gear," said Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, who has caught six of Gausman's seven major league starts this year and others in Norfolk and Bowie over the past two seasons. "It takes a special player to do that. He's done that a few times this year. …
"I've challenged him a few times on the mound … to step it up and bring it right here, and he's risen to the challenge every time knowing this is an important, key moment in the game. He's been able to rise to it each time. We know he's not going to be perfect every time, but he's a special player who has the ability to rear back and kind of find that third and fourth and fifth gear."
Showalter also said he has seen marked improvement from Gausman.
"I think there's so many things that guys have to experience, even when you're carrying really good stuff, and you're getting whacked around and saying, 'What's going on?' Instead of saying, 'What's going on?', it's gotta be, 'What am I going to do to keep my team in the game?' " Showalter said. "He understands that sometimes more is not better. I also explain everything to him, why we're doing this and why we're doing that.
"He knows we have his and our best interests at heart. Let's face it, I just want him to grasp what a whole season is like, being around the whole year. I'm proud of him. He's right where he needs to be. Is he capable of being rock solid the rest of the way? Sure, but so is everybody else. He realizes how hard this is to do. These are the best hitters in the world."
The Orioles will need an improved Gausman. Their first 29 games after the All-Star break are against teams with records .500 or better, and the last week of the season takes them on a road trip to play the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Don't expect the Orioles to veer away from utilizing matchups with Gausman in the second half, as they will with the rest of their starters.
It's no secret that Gausman will make his first start of the second half against the same Oakland team against which he had one of his best performances earlier this year. He has a 1.80 ERA in five career games (two starts) against the Red Sox and he is 3-1 with a 2.40 ERA in six games (one start) against the Yankees.
Gausman said he's aiming to pitch 180 innings this season. He only has thrown 83 2/3 innings so far, including just 38 1/3 in the major leagues, so that estimate is optimistic. But the Orioles have made it clear they're not restricting him.
"It's exciting here," Gausman said. "It's something new every day, and these guys keep it loose around here, and it's a fun group to be around. That's more than anything why I don't like going down. I like being around my teammates. I like being around here. I like the people we have in place here.
"They make it really easy to come to the field every day. You get that feeling that everybody wants to be the best they can be. It's exciting because guys can go their entire career and not be on a team that's worth a crap ever. So in my second year, being a part of this, it's fun."
Kevin Gausman's journey this season
March 29: Optioned to Triple-A Norfolk from Orioles to start season
May 2: Placed on minor league disabled list, retroactive to April 30
May 10: Activated from minor league disabled list
May 14: Recalled to Orioles from Triple-A Norfolk
May 15: Optioned to Triple-A Norfolk from Orioles
June 7: Recalled to Orioles from Triple-A Norfolk
June 21: Optioned to Triple-A Norfolk from Orioles
June 24: Transferred to Double-A Bowie from Triple-A Norfolk
June 26: Transferred to Orioles' taxi squad from Double-A Bowie
June 27: Recalled to Orioles from taxi squad
June 28: Optioned to short-season Single-A Aberdeen from Orioles
July 6: Recalled to Orioles from short-season Single-A Aberdeen
July 7: Optioned to Triple-A Norfolk from Orioles
July 13: Recalled to Orioles from Triple-A Norfolk
Kevin Gausman's stats this season
Orioles: 4-2, 3.29 ERA, 7 starts, 38 1/3 IP
Norfolk: 1-3, 3.32 ERA, 11 starts, 43 1/3 IP
Aberdeen: 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 1 start, 2 IP
Overall: 5-5, 3.23 ERA, 19 starts, 83 2/3 IPCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun