TORONTO — Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman navigated through the end of his longest start of this young season Thursday night realizing he was facing a Toronto Blue Jays lineup desperate to break out of an early-season funk.
Gausman knew he could be aggressive with his mid-90s fastball early on, and his ability to locate the pitch against an aggressive Blue Jays lineup sent him on his way to a closely contested 2-1 victory at Rogers Centre.
"I know that they know they're scuffling," Gausman said. "It's kind of that mentally, put your foot on their throat while they're down."
Gausman's results over his first two starts were uneven, with both outings shortened because he got lost in deep counts. But his best performance of the season was more like the Gausman that emerged in the second half of last season, mainly because he was able to set the tone early with quick innings.
"I felt more like myself in this start than the first two definitely," Gausman said. "The biggest thing I tried to work on in my bullpen day was just trying to have that rhythm and staying over the mound, and when I can do that I can throw fastballs down and away pretty consistently. That's one thing I had. I had good command today. It's just kind of getting back into it."
Gausman (1-0) held the Blue Jays to one run on five hits over six innings, earning his first victory of the season with his first quality start of the year.
Over the season's first several games, the Orioles (6-2) have played close games nearly every single night — five of their six wins have been decided by two runs or fewer — and Gausman's ability to limit the Blue Jays to one run was the difference Thursday night.
The win kept the Orioles in first place in the American League East as the Blue Jays (1-8) continued their early-season spiral.
"He had his pitch count under control until they made him work a little bit those last couple of innings," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "There was a seven-inning outing there. But we wanted to cut him off at six. It's first time he'd been there. Kevin — you can talk about a lot of things in the game, but Kevin was the difference."
Gausman needed just 31 pitches to get through his first three innings, in part because he was able to work quick at-bats — something he struggled to do in his first two starts. Among the first nine batters he faced, he threw more than four pitches to just two.
"As a starting pitcher, you always want to try to hit the ground running going into a start," Gausman said. "So it was good having those first two quick innings and kind of let that be the platform for the game. Mechanically, I felt the best that I have this season so far. It's kind of always trying to get better."
He was markedly more aggressive, unafraid to pitch to contact and keeping the ball on the ground than in his first two starts. Of his first nine outs, eight were on ground balls and five were induced by fastballs. Gausman's strikeout (three) and walk (two) totals were his lowest this season.
"It's always good to get those quick outs and threw some really good pitches when I needed to," Gausman said. "The biggest thing I was happy about is when you give up a leadoff double by [Kevin] Pillar [in the third] and you keep it from scoring. That's something those top-tier starters consistently do. It's a good sign and anytime I'm getting ground-ball outs, it kind of shows me that I kind of have it that day."
That combination allowed Gausman to maneuver through some deeper counts later as the game remained close, and he survived a dangerous sixth inning his third time through the order. Going into the sixth, Gausman had allowed just three hits, and the Blue Jays had just one base runner in scoring position through the first five innings.
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Clinging to a two-run lead, Gausman allowed back-to-back one-out doubles — a hit to the center-field wall by Jose Bautista before Josh Donaldson's liner down the right-field line — that quickly put the tying run in scoring position at second base.
Gausman then lost Kendrys Morales on an eight-pitch walk, his longest at-bat of the night — after going ahead of him 1-2.
Gausman then recovered, retiring Troy Tulowitzki on a first-pitch 94-mph fastball on a loud but harmless flyout to center and then getting Russell Martin to weakly pop up to second on a 96 mph fastball.
"Obviously, my first two starts were a little shaky and I was kind of all over the place honestly trying to figure out my mechanics," Gausman said. "So using my bullpen session to kind of get that rhythm back, it felt like I had it tonight, especially those first five innings. I had to correct myself a couple times in that sixth inning, but yeah, you're always just trying to give your team the chance to win.
"I think it's just having that tempo, getting the ball and going. That puts pressure on those guys, too, and when you can consistently throw strikes, I think guys are going up there trying to hack and that's where you kind of have them where you want it. I was able to get some good swings early on on pitches out of the zone and I gave up a couple hits on them. But for the most part if you can have a start here and pretty much keep them in the ballpark, that's what you're trying to do."