The second inning started with a pair of infield dribblers and ended with a three-run frame that bloated Kevin Gausman’s pitch count early in the game.
On either side of it, he was the pitcher the Orioles have longed for all season. In total, it was another in a head-scratching line of starts from the Orioles’ Opening Day starter in an eventual 6-5, walk-off win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“That was a very odd start,” Gausman said. “It’s one of those things where I felt like I threw the ball great and threw some really good pitches when I needed to and where I wanted to. Unfortunately, sometimes, they just get the better of you.”
Said manager Buck Showalter: “I was looking at the stats and stuff on him today, and it’s just not reflective of what he’s capable of doing. You look at the hits-to-innings [ratio] and you see some of those happenstances. It takes a strong constitution to keep grinding through that and not say, ‘Wow.’ … Every once in a while, they’re human beings, they go, ‘Gosh, what do I got to do here?’
“These guys, I tell them all the time, you’ve got to keep grinding and stay true and keep pushing and the baseball gods will be kind to you. If you go back to the first inning, they hit some balls hard that we caught. There were harder balls hit in the first inning than there were the one when he gave up the runs.”
After a snappy first inning, even with that hard contact, Gausman was victimized by a pair of seeing-eye hits — one by third baseman David Freese that eluded second baseman Jonathan Schoop up the middle, and another that was too slow off the bat of designated hitter Josh Bell for third baseman Manny Machado to turn into an out on the infield grass.
According to MLB’s Statcast data, similar batted balls are hits just 7 and 8 percent of the time, respectively.
But in a season that has been a seemingly endless barrage of bad luck and batted balls finding grass for Gausman, Tuesday night’s start was no different.
After those two singles — and an error on a throw by Machado to enable Freese to go to third base — the Pirates started connecting for some actual hard contact. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen singled home Freese, and first baseman John Jaso scored Bell. A third run scored on a jammed groundout by shortstop Jordy Mercer, a particularly poor piece of contact that extended the Orioles’ deficit to 3-1 nonetheless.
“He gets a chopper anywhere else and it sneaks through the infield, then he gets a broken-bat flare the other way off the end of the bat, then McCutchen fights a ball off and may have broken his bat in right,” Showalter said. “I think he gave up one hard-hit ball that inning. So I kind of take that with a grain of salt. But it’s what happened after that. He kept us engaged in the game.”
He allowed just four men to reach, including a home run by Freese, for the remainder of his start. But that second inning essentially spoiled Gausman’s night. He threw 33 of his 113 pitches in that frame, and allowed half of the eight hits he’d cede on the day. And in some ways, it was a microcosm of his season.
Entering Tuesday, Gausman had allowed a .356 batting average on balls in play — putting him second in the major leagues behind reigning Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello. The league average is typically .300, and Gausman’s highest in any year he started more than half of his major league appearances was last year’s .308.
Some of it is due to hard contact — his 89.1 mph average exit velocity entering Tuesday’s game was 15th highest in the majors for pitchers with at least 500 pitches thrown this season. Some of it is due to simple luck. However it happened, Gausman’s unfortunate second inning cost him dearly.
He left in the seventh inning having allowed four runs on eight hits with five strikeouts and just one walk in 6 2/3 innings, bringing his ERA to 5.86. He said he saw a thread through this start and all the previous ones this season.
“Obviously, my strikeouts are down this year and I think that’s the thing,” Gausman said. “Guys know that when I get to two strikes, I’m going to be pretty tough on them. Like in that second inning, I threw every pitch where I wanted to throw it. That’s one of those things where you’ve just got to roll with it and try to stick it out and hope that it stops.”