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Ace turn by Kevin Gausman adds missing ingredient to Orioles rotation

Kevin Gausman didn't turn into a front-line major league starter overnight, a reality that caused considerable consternation in those desperate for the Orioles to finally grow an ace to complete a team that has lacked only that in recent years.

Kevin Gausman didn't turn into a front-line major league starter overnight, a reality that caused considerable consternation in those desperate for the Orioles to finally grow an ace to complete a team that has lacked only that in recent years.

Whatever the timeline proved to be, the Orioles' No. 1 pick in 2012 is — in the heat of a pennant chase where there's so little separation between the myriad American League contenders — now pitching like a No.1 starter. And it has proved to be worth the wait, though those inside and outside the Orioles organization, plus Gausman himself, all agree that his massive leap is a product of all the major league time that led to it.

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"At times, the hardest thing for an organization and fans is to be patient with young pitching, especially when it's young pitching that has terrific stuff," said Dan Plesac, a three-time All-Star reliever and an MLB Network analyst. "You see flashes and you beat your head up against the wall thinking, 'Why can't Kevin Gausman do this all the time?'

"He's shown flashes of brilliance. That's what comes with experience. That's what comes with maturing, and I think they're finally seeing him put it all together. I think the coolest part about this, for me, is he's doing it when they need it the most."

Gausman's stunning performance in Boston on Wednesday — eight scoreless innings, four hits, a walk, and six strikeouts against the game's best offense — was an extension of the best pitching of the 25-year-old right-hander's life. Plesac called it Gausman's "2016 coming-out party."

Since the All-Star break, Gausman is 7-4 with a 2.58 ERA, punctuated by his current five-start stretch that includes four scoreless outings and three earned runs with 32 strikeouts in 33 innings.

The makings of an ace

By so many measures — ERA, wins above replacement and strikeout rate, to name a few — Gausman has been a top-10 pitcher in baseball in the second half of the season. To hear him tell it, he doesn't use the word itself but he's showing all the attributes of a bona fide ace on the mound every fifth game.

"I've just been way more consistent," Gausman said. "I think my other thing is confidence. If you get the confidence at this level, it's kind of contagious. You take the mound expecting to pitch well. You're not wondering in the back of your head, 'How is this start going to go?' You're confident in yourself and your ability.

"The other thing is knowing that you're ready. My first year, I really struggled to start off, so there was kind of that thought in the back of my mind, because I've never really struggled at all that badly in my baseball career. That was the first time where you're thinking, 'Oh man, is this what I've got myself into?'"

It's a rotation now, where if you're going to go to Boston and match up with David Price ... you feel like you have Gausman going, it doesn't matter.


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All of that is gone now. When he sees a lineup like that of the Boston Red Sox, which was responsible for two of Gausman's three worst games in the first half of this season, he ignores the past.

"You've got to think you're going to shut them down," Gausman said. "Whoever it is, however hot they are, you've got to have that mindset."

When he sees the offense grinding in the opposite half of the inning and knows his margin of error is small, or watches a pesky batter waste his best offerings foul, it's not alarms sounding on the mound.

"I think that's what makes those elite guys so good, is the margin for error is just a little bit smaller," Gausman said. "That's where it goes back to that word: consistency. Those guys are as consistent as they can be every fifth day."

To many observers, Wednesday was the moment that Gausman's full realization of all that went on display for the world to see. Executive vice president Dan Duquette wouldn't say Gausman has become the ace many believe has been this team's missing piece for a half-decade, but came close.

"He's on his way," Duquette said. "He's pitching the way we need him to pitch.

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"That was a very impressive performance in Boston. That's an excellent lineup, a very talented lineup. And he competed in Detroit, too. He was in there fighting tooth and nail against that lineup. … He's been working hard on all areas of his game, and he's putting it together. He's got good talent. He's always had the talent. He's got consistent command of his fastball, and also improved his breaking pitches and the consistency of his breaking pitches. You've seen flashes of him, of this type of performance for him, at every stage of his career with the Orioles. Now, he's putting it together very nicely. But he's also improved. He's really learned how to pitch."

Belief builds

Multiple American League scouts who have followed Gausman's progress over the course of his career and this season agree with that assessment. There isn't a very tangible difference in his arsenal. He still has an easy, overpowering fastball that he commands well in the strike zone. He still has his splitter, which he might be throwing a little harder now but has always had as a reliable out pitch. He's still learning how to best use his developing breaking ball, but even that has caused less trouble since the All-Star break and is coming along well.

It might sound like they're speaking in abstracts or obfuscating when a scout says something like, "It all clicked for him," or, "He's learning to pitch," or the simplest and surest form of praise an evaluator can offer: "He was out there pitching."

"They've been waiting for a couple of seasons for him to bow his neck and stick his chest out and be that guy, but it takes time," Plesac said. "You just don't flip a switch and it happens. It's trial and error. It's failure and learning from the failure. It's not getting down on yourself. It's really believing, and the only way you can really believe is you can go out there and see the results.

"You can pound your chest and you can scream and yell and you can do all these things and be a fake tough guy, a fake confident guy, but I think an organization and opposing teams and hitters, they sense that. … Kevin Gausman doesn't have to do that. The American League hitters, they know now: 'Wow, this guy has figured it out.' Because it's a different ballgame when you're standing in the batter's box facing this guy now."

If it seems too subjective of a reason for a pitcher to make a leap from good to great, perhaps permanently, it's not like other reasons jump out.

Statistically, what stands out is the home runs. At the break, he was allowing 1.56 home runs per nine innings and a 16.7 percent home run-to-fly ball rate, both among the highest in the majors. In the second half, he has allowed 0.98 home runs per nine innings, and owns a much more reasonable 11.4 percent HR/FB rate. Of the 23 home runs Gausman has allowed this year, 16 are solo shots. Half of the 64 runs he has allowed have come off home runs, and he has kept the ball in the park in each of his past five starts, allowing no homers since giving up two on Aug. 18

"It's one of those things where even in the first half, I felt like I was throwing the ball well," Gausman said. "My stuff has been better this season than it has been in the past. That's one of those things where sometimes, the results are kind of skewed. You pitch great, you're feeling great and a couple things don't go your way, you give up a bloop hit every now and then and it changes.

"I think one of the biggest things, and it's something that I did in 2014 when I pitched well, was not giving up the long ball. I think that's a big key, especially in some of the ballparks that we play in. If we can keep guys out of hitting home runs, when they do making sure they're solo home runs, you're going to kind of give yourself a good shot to throw quality innings and go deep into games."

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Game changer?

All of this recent success obscures the fact that Gausman wasn't exactly a stiff before he took this leap. He's in his fourth major league season but first as a full-time starter, and has a 3.93 career ERA. Still, his raw abilities portended a pitcher like the one he has become.

And not only the Orioles but the baseball world at large waited for him to assume that role.

"If you go back and listen to some of the games that we did back in May, and some of the Baseball Tonight [episodes], I said back then that I thought that Kevin was the key to the American League East," said former Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, an ESPN analyst who did color commentary on Wednesday's game at Fenway Park. "Was he going to be able to put it all together and be the No. 1 guy that they expected him to be back when they drafted him?

"… That was a battle of No. 1s. That game had playoff potential written all over it. I remember. There's nothing better as a starting pitcher than keeping 40,000 fans in their seats. He absolutely shut down Fenway, and particularly this year, that's not an easy thing to do."

Sutcliffe and Plesac both said Gausman's surge changes the perception of the Orioles as a team without a front-line starter, a notion further dispelled by the return of a healthy Chris Tillman and the contributions of rookie Dylan Bundy. That changes the discourse around them as the pennant chase boils this month.

"Everything else was there — offense, defense, bullpen," Sutcliffe said. "But the starting rotation was really the Achilles heel, and I think, right now, the way those guys are going along with Tillman being back, you can find that being one of their strengths as they get into the playoffs. Which I feel like they will. It's a coin toss in that American League East now, but Gausman and Bundy have given them a chance to win it."

Said Plesac: "I think Tillman … was terrific in his start back. Bundy has chipped in. It's a rotation now, where if you're going to go to Boston and match up with David Price, or go to Toronto and match up against J.A. Happ or Marco Estrada or Marcus [Stroman], you feel like you have Gausman going, it doesn't matter."

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