Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman spent the first half of this season answering queries about receiving poor run support, his inexplicable road losing streak and an overall win-loss record that didn't fairly indicate how well he had pitched.
Now, Gausman has put all those questions behind him, having emerged as the Orioles' top starting pitcher as his team grinds through a pennant race.
On Wednesday night, he was matched up against American League Cy Young Award candidate Rick Porcello, who won his 20th game of the season Friday and was 13-0 this year at Fenway Park.
But the 25-year-old right-hander bested Porcello, tossing eight masterful scoreless innings to lead the Orioles to a 1-0 victory over the division-leading Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night in front of an announced sellout crowd of 37,973 at Fenway Park.
Gausman (8-10) allowed just five base runners on the night on four singles and a walk, while a sixth batter also reached on a fielding error by Matt Wieters in the first. He threw a first-pitch strike to 21 of the 29 batters he faced.
Four of Gausman's past five starts have been scoreless outings of at least six innings. Over that span, Gausman's ERA is a minuscule 0.82, as he has allowed just three runs over 33 innings.
"Every year I've always gotten better as the year has gone on, but this year it's kind of all clicking for me," Gausman said. "I think I'm reading hitters' swings a little bit more and I think my rhythm is a lot better, too. I think sometimes I'll get in the mood of shaking off too many pitches and right now I'm kind of locked in and getting the ball going."
With the win, the Orioles (80-65) finished their pivotal three-city, nine-game road trip against the Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers and Red Sox with a 6-3 record, winning all three series of a road trip for the first time this season.
"Kevin knew he was going to have to be on top of his game," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Porcello's having a great year and he's going to be another Cy Young candidate that we've seen a lot of them on this road trip. … I think [Gausman threw] a lot of quality strikes with the fastball. I think Kevin and Dylan [Bundy] both realize it's one thing to have a good fastball, but poorly located fastballs get whacked up here. Both sides of the plate were there for him and Matt knew when to slow him down a little bit. You could see his tempo and just the way he was going about his business that he had a real confident front."
The Orioles now trail the Red Sox by just one game in the American League East and have sole possession of the first of two AL wild cards, leading the Toronto Blue Jays by one game.
The only run the Orioles needed came on Mark Trumbo's solo home run off Porcello to open the second inning. It was his major league-leading 42nd homer of the season.
Gausman's recent dominance has been mainly against fellow AL playoff contenders. He posted back-to-back scoreless outings against the New York Yankees, followed by a six-inning, three-run quality start against the Tigers before his latest gem, dominating a Boston lineup that leads baseball in most offensive categories.
"This is a guy with big-time stuff that's really coming into his own," Trumbo said. "Command is obviously huge. He was ahead of virtually every hitter over there, and from experience when guys are constantly getting strike one on you, those are the types of games that can result like his where he was going out there and having tremendous success."
Gausman opened the season losing his first five decisions and seven of his first eight, but still posted a respectable 4.05 ERA despite his 1-7 record through 16 starts. He went through frustrating times when he showed flashes of brilliance, but became unraveled by one or two bad pitches. Gausman went through a stretch of 25 straight consecutive road starts without earning a win, a streak that dated to 2014 and ended Aug. 28 in New York. For no particular reason, he was a victim of poor run support as the Orioles struggled to score when he was on the mound.
But now, he has taken circumstance out of the equation in dominant fashion. The Orioles are just 5-33 when scoring two runs or fewer this season. Three of those wins were started by Gausman, including two in his past three starts.
"Even when all of that was happening," Gausman said, "I knew that there was really nothing I could really control. I pitched great at home and was trying to figure it out on the road. I feel like I'm pitching my best right now, so that's good."
Gausman didn't allow a hit Wednesday until Mookie Betts' two-out single in the fourth inning, and didn't let a runner reach scoring position until the seventh.
He was the beneficiary of some sparkling defense behind him. Third baseman Manny Machado made a sliding, spinning snag of Betts' two-out one-hopper to end the first inning and shortstop J.J. Hardy made a nice running play on Xander Bogaerts' grounder in the sixth, receiving a short-hop snag from Chris Davis at first to complete the play.
Boston's best threat against Gausman came in the seventh, when the Red Sox put runners at the corners with two outs. But Gausman ended the inning by striking out catcher Sandy Leon on three pitches.
Gausman, who rarely shows emotion on the mound, emphatically pumped his fist after striking out Leon swinging on a splitter following two mid-90s fastballs.
"You really have to take a step back and really think about what you're going to throw," Gausman said. "I felt like I had him sped up, so I decided to go with the split-finger and it was probably one of the best ones I threw all night. To come up big in those situations, I feel like in the past, last year I somehow let that game get away from me, whether it's a ground ball up the middle or a little bloop hit. I just tried to be a stopper today."