Right-hander Kevin Gausman can’t explain exactly why he struggled so mightily through the first half of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, but he has spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.
So has manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Roger McDowell, who clearly have ordered their season-opening starting rotation to place Gausman in the best position to get off to a decent start.
He’ll take the mound Sunday in the finale of the first series against the Minnesota Twins, and nothing about that is an accident. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the major leagues and Showalter needs to squeeze every possible win out of it.
Everybody matters, of course. Dylan Bundy started Opening Day because he was the best pitcher last year and the first guy up gets a chance to get an extra start over the course of the season. Andrew Cashner fits right into the second slot because he gives the Twins a much different look than Bundy. Chris Tillman will start Monday against the Astros because he’s less likely to be affected by the home-opening hoopla in Houston.
“I like the fit of where everybody is right now...It’s as much that,’’ Showalter said.
But don’t kid yourself.
Gausman matters a little more because of the troubling trend that seemed to be developing through his first two full seasons in the Orioles rotation. He was 1-7 at midseason in 2016. He was 4-7 with a 6-plus ERA heading into July last year. In each case, he rebounded sharply, but that’s not going to be good enough if the Orioles hope to stay competitive in the tough American League East.
He knows that, which is why he made some changes in his mechanics during the second half of last season and started throwing earlier this winter.
“I made some changes in my delivery last season and I think having a whole offseason to really focus on that and focus on landing on the same spot every pitch, I think that’s been huge for me,’’ Gausman said. “I’m ready to get going. Had a great spring. Feel great…mechanics…everything feels good. I feel like I’m getting better every time I take the mound, and that’s always good.”
Meanwhile, the guy behind the curtain has determined that starting Gausman third gives him a chance to face Minnesota’s Sunday lineup, which presumably will include a few non-regulars. It also puts him on schedule — at least to some extent — to match up against the No. 3 or No. 4 starters on some of the 2017 playoff teams (including the Twins) that the Orioles are going to face between now and April 24.
Showalter always does that kind of thing. It’s just more important now because of the ridiculous strength of schedule in April, but he’ll be the first to tell you that the best-laid plans of mice and managers can be undone by a couple of rainouts and doubleheaders.
Gausman isn’t really aware of all those machinations. He just wants to pitch well and thinks that the combination of jump-starting his offseason program 10 days early and the addition of a couple of veteran pitchers to fill out the rotation will put him in position to do that from the get-go.
“I did a lot to get my body prepared and my arm,’’ he said. “Usually every spring I kind of have a week when my shoulder gets a little cranky and I didn’t have that this year. I feel great.”
It’ll probably help that Gausman no longer feels like he and Bundy have to carry the whole rotation after a 2017 season in which Ubaldo Jiménez and Wade Miley were undependable and Tillman never really got out of the gate.
“It’s huge,’’ Gausman said. “I think one kind of intangible Cashner brings is his attitude. He’s a bulldog. We have a couple guys who are like that, but they’re kind of quiet and lead by example. Tillman’s one of those guys. Leads by example. Goes about his business. And Bundy’s a bulldog, but he’s never going to say it out loud.
“Cashner is one of those guys who, if he strikes a guy out in a big situation, he has some emotion to him and I think that’s really good. And then also bringing in Cobb, a guy who’s established, not only in the American League but in the AL East. He knows how to pitch against all these teams…knows the ballparks. That’s definitely an intangible that a lot of people don’t talk about.”
Gausman said that he even got a confidence boost from the commitment the franchised showed when it brought in Cashner and pushed the economic envelope by signing Cobb to a rich, four-year deal that was a club record for a pitcher.
“These were two guys we really wanted and we went out and got both of them,’’ he said. “In the past, I think we’ve liked some guys and then, for whatever reason, at the last second we didn’t get them. So, it’s really nice to have guys that we really wanted and were able to go get them.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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