Depending on how he approached it, Orioles starter Kevin Gausman could have seen the circumstances of Tuesday's exhibition matchup against the World Baseball Classic-bound Dominican Republic squad take him in any direction.
The postcard-perfect weather and the Caribbean music playing between innings could have taken the rising-star right-hander to a place far more relaxed than reality at Ed Smith Stadium, where the lineup he had to face — boasting 25 All-Star appearances between its players — certainly seemed daunting
Once the proceedings began, the man who could continue his ascension this season into a top-flight starting pitcher and possibly even start on Opening Day showed he was up for even the most unique challenge spring training could offer.
"That's one thing I wanted to tell myself today, not to just get too crazy, you know?" Gausman said. "During the season, if I'm facing a team like that, it might be a little bit different.
"It's basically an All-Star team. It really is. You've got to be on top of your game. You've got to be able to throw strikes, and against a lineup like that, you can't throw too many strikes. If you just live in the zone against those guys, they're the best in the world and the best from the Dominican Republic. They're very good."
Gausman was, too. And he had to be.
The top of the visiting team's lineup read like a who's who of the game's brightest stars. Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, Gausman's own teammate Manny Machado, and Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano occupied the first three spots. The next three featured sluggers Jose Bautista, Carlos Santana, and Nelson Cruz.
Before the game descended into folly, with pitchers on loan from the Orioles pitching in Dominican uniforms against their teammates, Gausman had every reason to level up at a time when most pitchers are just getting their work in.
He pitched three innings without allowing a hit, walked one and struck out Cruz on a high 96 mph fastball.
"It's a little different," manager Buck Showalter said. "Guys say, 'It's spring training; I know where the finish line [is],' and all that, but there's a little professional pride going on there. These are guys he sees all year long, and that's a great lineup. But he's been pitching well down here from the get-go. I'm really happy with him — the two young guys, he and Dylan [Bundy]."
The Dominican team entered the game buzzing after an at-times raucous stretch session and an energetic batting practice, and was emboldened by a packed set of supporters behind their dugout, but Gausman started strong.
His first inning took just nine pitches, and saw him set down Reyes, Machado, and Cano with groundouts.
He issued a leadoff walk to Bautista in the second inning, but worked around it and didn't allow another man on base in that inning or the third.
Perhaps most impressive, he did it without the split-fingered fastball that is his best non-fastball offering. Early in spring, Gausman said he tries not to throw his split-fingered fastball, as it causes blisters with his fingers, so he shelves it until the very end of spring training.
"To get through that lineup for three innings without throwing probably my best secondary pitch is a good sign," Gausman said. "One of the things I wanted to work on today was throwing four-seam, two-seam, changeup, and I got a ground ball on a sinker for Cano. It's about kind of getting back into the game, making sure your routine before the game is as season-like as it can be."
It was also his changeup that got Machado to ground out in the first inning — an at-bat Gausman made a point to emphasize after he left the game. Bragging rights were in the front of his mind, but Gausman is also building toward a season that could see him elevate into one of the game's top pitchers.
He ended 2016 pitching as well as he has in his entire career, ending the year with a 2.83 ERA and four scoreless starts in his last 10. On the year, he went 9-12 with a 3.61 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings.
With Chris Tillman nursing a shoulder injury, Gausman could be thrust into an Opening Day assignment in his stead. He entered spring training last year secure in his role before a shoulder issue cost him about of month of work, but says this year's long spring training is off to a good start.
"So far, good," Gausman said. "Just two outings, five innings. Today, to kind of nitpick, I got ahead in some counts and ended up going full count. I got deep in some counts and threw some bad pitches not where I wanted to, but I kind of got away with it. Overall, I tried to pound the strike zone and got a lot of ground ball outs. Any time you get that, it's usually a sign things are going the right way."