Reality didn't set in for Orioles pitching prospect Kevin Gausman that he was heading to the major leagues until the moment he boarded his connection flight to Baltimore on Wednesday morning.
"Then, I just kinda was thinking, you know, 'Wow, I'm really here. It's crazy,'" Gausman said. "I wish I had hugged this guy or said thanks and stuff like that, but it didn't really hit me until [then]."
After just 14 starts in the minor leagues, the 22-year-old Gausman arrived at Camden Yards on Wednesday afternoon, getting plenty of handshakes, high-fives and hugs from his new teammates in the Orioles clubhouse. The 2012 first-round draft pick is scheduled to make his major league debut Thursday night in Toronto. He will officially be recalled before the game.
All along, the Orioles planned to call up Gausman at some point this season, but even Gausman couldn't have predicted making his first big league appearance just seven weeks into the season directly from the Double-A level.
"I was kind of shocked," Gausman said.
The Orioles need a capable arm to help stabilize their patchwork starting rotation, and the organization believes last June's No. 4 overall pick out of LSU can help.
"He has the best stuff and the most consistent control of just about any pitcher that we have in the organization," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "So we thought employing his strength for our major league team was the way to go."
Just last week, Duquette squashed rumors that Gausman would fill a rotation spot over the weekend, saying he was not a current option, but a "future" one.
"The future is now," Duquette said Wednesday.
Gausman, who is rated the organization's second best prospect and the 26th overall by Baseball America, has just 64 1/3 professional innings under his belt. But the Orioles are confident that Gausman's makeup can overcome any inexperience.
"A lot depends on maturity," manager Buck Showalter said. "But Friday night pitchers at LSU in front of 10,000 people, he's pitched in a lot of environments. Ability plays. That gives you confidence. The old adage of if they bite as a puppy, they're going to bite as a big dog, it's like I've said many times: Try as you may, you can't screw up the good ones. They're going to seek their level, and we think sooner or later Kevin is going to seek his level. We're hoping sooner."
Gausman spent most of spring training in big league camp before he was assigned to Double-A Bowie, where he worked on getting adjusted to being part of a five-man rotation and throwing all three of his pitches for strikes.
In his first three starts at Bowie, he struggled to keep the ball down, but he improved his command with each start, combining a mid-90s fastball, a plus changeup and a slider that improved as the weather warmed up.
It took just eight starts there to get the call. Gausman was 2-4 with a 3.11 ERA over 46 1/3 innings with 49 strikeouts and just five walks.
"His starts kept getting better and better stuff-wise, and his ability to just pound the bottom of the strike zone and get his changeup over and his slider just keeps improving," Bowie manager Gary Kendall said. "He did everything. He's a relentless working. He's a guy with great work habits. He did everything he needed to do here."
Developing his slider, a pitch he's made tremendous strides with in instructional league last year, has been a game-changer for Gausman. Early in the season, he admitted he was probably too often pitching in the strike zone, and the slider presents a legitimate chase pitch.
"I think the biggest thing [I've improved] is probably my slider more than anything," he said. "I've spent all year learning different ways to throw it and in different situations, so that's something I definitely learned more than anything else."
Duquette wouldn't say whether the Orioles plan to keep Gausman in the majors for the rest of the season, but it appears that Gausman — who will become the team's 11th starting pitcher this season — will get multiple starts.
"That future opportunity is really based on how players play, right?" Duquette said. "But Kevin Gausman has a good future as a major league pitcher, and with his control and stuff, I think he'll be very competitive."
"When you can add a good player to your team, I think it shows a commitment to the club to field a competitive team day in, day out," he added. "When you can add a pitcher of Kevin Gausman's quality, with his stuff and control, I think it tells the team that we want to win."
One of the final cuts of spring training, Gausman got a taste of facing big league hitters. He pitched against the Blue Jays twice in Grapefruit League games — both times in relief — allowing one run on one hit over 2 1/3 innings. But he realizes this time will be much different.
"I think the hitters up here have more of a plan," Gausman said. "I think the hitters are smarter and make quicker adjustments. I think as a pitcher, whether you're a starter or in the [bullpen], you've got to be able to make quick adjustments as well. I think it's definitely a game of who can make the quicker adjustment."
Showalter said starting Gausman on the road wasn't by design — the Orioles had a rotation spot to fill on Thursday. Gausman was scheduled to start Wednesday for Bowie in Akron, but he was scratched from that start and arrived in Baltimore on Wednesday so he could travel with the team through customs to Canada.
When Gausman arrived to the clubhouse, a huge scrum of media was waiting by his locker. He dropped his bag, walked into Showalter's office for a quick talk and then went around to greet his teammates one by one.
Showalter said he leaned on catcher Matt Wieters, whose major league debut on May 29, 2009 was incredibly heralded, for advice on how to make Gausman's first day in the majors easier. Upon Wieters' suggestion, Showalter had the reporters disperse from Gausman's locker to give him 30 minutes to get adjusted to his new surroundings.
As the media finished interviewing Gausman, reliever Darren O'Day jokingly threw his cleat into the scrum — posing it as a microphone — and asked Gausman if he was going to be late for his first major league stretch session.
One thing that stands out about Gausman is his comfort. He fit in well during spring training. And despite intense amounts of attention in the minors — Gausman would be mobbed by autograph-seekers in Bowie on nights when he was in the stands charting pitches — he's handled it all well.
"He's very mature," Kendall said. "What he did between his starts and how he prepared, he was so focused on where he wants to be, and that's pitching in the big leagues. Everything he's done here and everything he's done in the past as an Oriole, the focus has been on getting to the big leagues, and he's worked hard at it."