SARASOTA, FLA. — Kevin Gausman's first spring training start went by nearly as quickly as one of the Orioles right-hander's mid-90s fastballs: If you blinked, you might have missed it.
Gausman's brief Grapefruit League debut — he threw a scoreless inning in the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers Wednesday afternoon in their home opener at Ed Smith Stadium — was by design.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter had said he would bring some of the team's veteran starting pitchers through spring training slowly, especially after logging innings deep into October, when the team advanced to the American League Championship Series.
The 24-year-old Gausman pitched in the playoffs for the first time in his career — allowing just one run in eight postseason relief innings — so the Orioles want to be careful with him, too. If the Orioles make another deep run in 2015, they undoubtedly want their most exciting young arm to be a part of it.
Showalter promises that the reins will soon be removed from Gausman, who has had strict inning and pitch limits since the Orioles made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
"All of our pitchers are precious commodities," Showalter said. "We try to [be careful with them], not that other organizations don't. … [Gausman] gets the process and stages. I think he gets and appreciates some of the caution we take with him, and there will come a day when we can take the governors off, which we're getting pretty close. We're far down the line."
Gausman usually arrives at spring training with seven or eight bullpen sessions under his belt, but this offseason, he was told to put the baseball down and not throw a single session.
"The first time a guy pitches into October in his life and we're just taking a lot of precautions with a lot of guys, not just Gausman, to kind of save our bullets as much as possible," Showalter said. "We'll start stretching him out as we go forward and see where the pitching staff takes us and where we end up going."
He will battle for a rotation spot — one of six pitchers fighting for five roles — and to make his first Opening Day roster. The Orioles fully expect Gausman to make it a difficult decision for them. And Showalter has insisted that the fact Gausman has options won't be used against him.
The Orioles have slowly lifted the restrictions off Gausman. He pitched 30 more innings in the regular season in 2014 than the previous year, not counting the additional eight he threw in the postseason.
"I remember when we were able to turn (ace Chris) Tillman loose," Showalter said. "You get a return from that, but you've got to stay the course and it's tough. It's tough, when it's so easy just to, you know. We hear the explanation why so much abuse takes place in college and high school and we get it. You're on a day-to-day contract."
Tillman, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Bud Norris have spots locked up in the rotation, which leaves Gausman battling right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez for the final two spots.
He left a favorable impresson in his spring debut Wednesday. His fastball sat at 96 mph, which was promising considering it was the first time the Orioles gave Gausman the green light to give his all.
"Yeah I'll take it for March 3rd, 4th?" Gausman said. "I'll take it. Really, that was the first time really letting it go. It felt good overall. I threw a good number of strikes. That's all I really want to do right now is pound the strike zone and from there, when it gets to regular season and later in spring, kind of be able to locate a little bit better."
Despite allowing a leadoff single to Anthony Gose, Gausman needed just 16 pitches to get out of the inning. A bouncer to second by shortstop Jose Iglesias that turned into a 4-6-3 double play helped. So did a strike-three call on Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez that ended the inning.
"Given today and how I felt, I felt pretty good and pretty happy with it," Gausman said. "Getting the first one out of the way is always good."
Gausman is hoping to build on a season in which he was 7-7 with a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts following a rookie campaign that saw him have success as a reliever (he held hitters to a .205 average out of the bullpen in 2013).
Last spring, Gausman pitched well, posting a 2.45 ERA in 11 Grapefruit League innings, but began the season in Triple-A after the team signed Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal.
"It's just one of those things where every year is going to be different," he said.
It's easy to forget that this is Gausman's third big league spring training camp, but Showalter has seen a gradual progression in the talented right-hander year-by-year.
"It's just getting to know the way things work and what's expected and know what works and doesn't work," Showalter said. "He never looked uncomfortable (early). He was just a pleaser, like 'What do they want me to do to be happy?' He takes a lot of initiative because he knows what's expected and how you're supposed to go about your business."
Now, Showalter said he sees Gausman carry himself with a quiet confidence around the clubhouse.
"I like these guys who don't have to show you," he said. "He had a couple (of those moments) in the playoffs."