Kevin Gausman opened the fifth inning of Wednesday's 5-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians with his most dominating sequence of the night, another glimpse of how special Gausman can be when everything is working for him -- something that's become far too irregular this season.
Gausman had pitched four shutout innings to this point, grinding his way through a two-on, no-out jam in the previous inning to keep Cleveland scoreless before opening the fifth facing left fielder Austin Jackson.
Gausman dotted a 93-mph four-seam fastball down for a called strike, threw a splitter near the same spot that Jackson fouled off, then finished a three-pitch strikeout with a slider down and away that Jackson chased.
Just three pitches, but it was all the evidence needed that Gausman has the ability to put hitters away.
But after that, the same problems that have beset Gausman throughout the season returned in a bad way.
He got ahead of rookie center fielder Bradley Zimmer 0-2 before leaving a fastball over the plate that Zimmer looped into center field for a single. Gausman worked both sides of the plate in getting ahead of No. 9 hitter Roberto Perez 1-2, then hung a center-cut fastball that Perez hit to left-center field for an RBI double.
Gausman then had a 2-2 count against Indians leadoff man Francisco Lindor, again working both sides of the plate effectively with fastballs, sliders and splits, before throwing a fastball that was over the middle at 96 mph that Lindor drove over the center-field fence.
Gausman was trying to go up the ladder on all three hitters, trying to induce a swing and miss high in the zone, but all three times, those pitches fell to flat.
Gausman found his rhythm after allowing a single to Jason Kipnis, striking out perhaps Cleveland's two most dangerous hitters in José Ramirez and Edwin Encarnación, though it took him 13 combined pitches to do it as both hitters worked the count full.
"He didn't let it get away from him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
Just like that, a scoreless game turned into a three-run deficit, but those three fastballs ended up being the difference between his best outing of the season and one in which he wishes he had a few pitches back.
"I'm trying to throw a fastball really high. Every single one of those right there, I had three chances to do it and I didn't do it," Gausman said. "Obviously, these guys are the best in the world for a reason. You make mistakes against them like that, they are going to make you pay for it, especially this lineup."
All in all, Gausman had some of his best stuff all season. He struck out a season-high nine batters. He located all three of his pitches down in the strike zone and worked both sides of the plate effectively.
He established his fastball – throwing 72 percent of his four-seamers for strikes – while balancing it out with a splitter that's been erratic this season, which benefited him against a lefty-heavy Indians lineup. For the most part, he didn't need his slider early and threw it only 16 times.
"I knew it was going to be a big pitch for me," Gausman said. "But I was really happy with it against right-handed hitters. I threw some really good ones, Encarnación. That's a big pitch for me, especially with the way these guys are in this division, too. Those big power right-handed hitters, if I can throw that split, kind of down and away, coming back to the plate, I'm gonna be successful a lot of times. That's a big pitch for me, and that's definitely one of the positives to take out of tonight."
Gausman needed 30 pitches to get through the fifth, even though his 21 strikes that inning showed that the length wasn't a result of poor command.
Gausman was just one out away from recording a quality start, leaving with one on with two outs in the sixth after throwing his 112th pitch of the night. A leadoff walk that inning by Lonnie Chisenhall likely cost him that out.
It was a step forward for Gausman, especially when it comes to base runners. He entered that fifth inning having allowed just three runners, and his eight runners overall (six hits, two walks) were his fewest since allowing six May 8, a seven-inning, two-run outing that was probably his best of the season.
"You take the positives and try to forget the negatives," Gausman said. "I think one of the huge positives to take out of this is I'm throwing the ball really good right now. Some things kind of went my way tonight. I felt like I was in a lot of 0-1, 0-2 counts. It's one thing to get to those counts, now I've just got to be a little bit better at throwing pitchers' pitches in those counts rather than pitches that are too good with two strikes."