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Yovani Gallardo shows himself to be an evolved pitcher in winning Orioles debut

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo makes his Orioles debut with a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Twins. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore's introduction to Yovani Gallardo revealed a pitcher who has become more of a tactician than a flamethrower, more concerned with giving every pitch purpose than getting caught up in flash.

Gallardo earned the win in his Orioles debut — a 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday — and he did so by mixing pitches and speeds, relying on his slider early to complement a high-80s fastball and dabbing in a curveball and changeup.

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He held a pesky Twins lineup to one run on two hits, striking out four and walking three. He lasted just five innings, pulled after 89 pitches. Take away Byron Buxton's two doubles, and the rest of the Twins lineup was 0-for-15 with three walks against Gallardo.

Gallardo, who signed six days into spring training workouts, is still a work in progress. He entered the season with just 13 spring innings under his belt, and while he showed he can flip the switch when the season starts, the Orioles know there's much more to expect.

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"I think he's getting there," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who wanted to cap Gallardo at 90 pitches after he threw 70 in his final spring start. "He's a guy who's going to add and subtract. I think he's a guy who's kind of evolved and knows who he is and who he isn't, a guy who keeps you in the ballgame and gives you a chance to win it if you catch it and score some runs. On a given night, he's carrying a little extra stuff, get a little deeper in the game. He's a pitcher and he doesn't give in in counts and knows when to pitch backward."

When the Orioles signed the 30-year-old right-hander to a two-year deal worth a guaranteed $22 million, what they needed him to do was add stability. Ever since then, the Orioles rotation has taken on a much different look. Kevin Gausman is on the disabled list. Mike Wright is the No. 4 starter. Miguel Gonzalez is gone.

Over the past seven seasons, Gallardo averaged six innings per start (6.01 innings over 223 starts), which details a long track record of deep starts. That's what the Orioles need.

Despite a 10.38 ERA in four Grapefruit League starts this spring, he tempered any concerns with five scoreless innings in his final spring outing. Both Gallardo and Showalter were confident the results would be there when it mattered, especially given his recent history of poor springs before solid regular seasons.

And while Gallardo isn't the strikeout pitcher he used to be — he averaged 204 strikeouts per season from 2009 to 2012 — he has still been productive. The mid-90s fastball has given way to an array breaking balls and off-speed pitches. He has evolved into a contact pitcher, which plays well in front of a solid Orioles defense.

"Honestly, I don't think about velocity at all," Gallardo said. "The most important thing that I've always thought about is location, locating your pitches. That was and still is my No. 1 priority. Changing speeds, I think you can go ask any hitter, I think that's the hardest thing. If you're mixing a big difference between your fastball and your off-speed pitches, it's tough, but I pitch to contact. That's the most important thing to me. I'm going to go out there and keep doing it. I feel confident with the numbers I've put up throughout my career and it's not going to change."

On Wednesday, he battled to find his put-away pitch, which was the main reason for his early exit. Still, he limited the damage, as the Twins' only run off Gallardo came when No. 9 batter Buxton's leadoff double in the third inning was followed by two sacrifices.

Not only did Gallardo rely on his slider early in the game to get ahead in counts, he also used it as his put-away pitch. Three of his four strikeouts came off the slider and not his fastball, which peaked at 89 mph according to the stadium radar gun. Gallardo's fastball averaged 90.5 mph last season.

"Against a patient lineup like that, you've got to establish it early, especially with the left-handed hitters," Gallardo said of using his slider. "I was able to throw it for a strike and get some swings out of it, which I think led to getting some swings out of the zone with the fastballs."

The Twins are a team stubborn in at-bats. One only needs to look back to last August, when Minnesota came to Camden Yards and swept four games from the Orioles — sending them on their second-half slide — with pesky at-bats and dink hits.

And despite issuing all three of his walks in his first three innings, Gallardo had thrown just 49 pitches through three frames. But the second time through the batting order, the Twins managed to lengthen at-bats.

With one out in the fourth inning, Gallardo needed 10 pitches to strike out Twins designated hitter Byung Ho Park. Gallardo got ahead of Park 0-2, but Park fouled off four straight pitches — including three sliders — before striking out swinging on a slider.

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Gallardo then needed 24 pitches to get out of the fifth inning, including a nine-pitch at-bat against Buxton that ended with a one-out double into the left-center-field gap. Like Park, Gallardo got ahead of Buxton 0-2 but couldn't put him away. Buxton fouled four balls off and worked the count full before hitting a ball into the gap.

"They fouled off some pretty good pitches, but also I think those were the innings I was struggling with my command a little bit," Gallardo said. "The fastballs I was throwing, they were up, they were a little bit too much over the plate. Earlier in the game, I was locating the fastballs down and I think that's going to happen. It's a matter of making the adjustment and if the fastball's not there, just mixing in the curveball and use a little more sliders and mix in some changeups in there, which I thought was helpful."

Showalter said he expects some of those deep counts with Gallardo.

"It's not something he's just doing the last year," he said. "He's always been that type of guy that, he's not going to give in and there's going to be some 0-2 to 2-2 and 3-2, but you're going to have to [beat him]. There's not a lot of early weak contact because he doesn't give in early. He's trying to make quality pitches every time. See how many pitches just missed tonight. You'll see a lot of that, I think. Watching him the last couple of years, that's kind of who he is."

As for Gallardo, his debut with his new team included some obstacles, but was a success because it ended with a win.

"It's exciting," Gallardo said of making his first start of the season. "It's always a good feeling overall. Just I had to battle. Got into some pretty deep counts, they fouled off some good pitches. We got the victory so that's the most important thing at the end of the day."

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

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