April 1, 2018 -- The Orioles lose to the Minnesota Twins, 7-0, dropping two out of three games in their season-opening series. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)
Kevin Gausman's first pitch of the 2018 season was a 91-mph, get-me-over fastball to Minnesota Twins leadoff hitter Brian Dozier that ended up getting over the left-field fence. And it didn't get much better from there.
After another promising spring that followed another promising end to the prior season, Gausman exhibited in his regular-season debut all the red flags that skew and ultimately undermine his immense talent.
Featuring the slowest average fastball he's had as a major leaguer, Gausman allowed three home runs and left with six runs on his account in the Orioles' 7-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins before an announced Easter crowd of 17,212.
Gausman was blunt about what he was carrying with his key pitch Sunday.
“I felt good but you know, for whatever reason, it just wasn't there today,” Gausman said. “I felt like I got better as the game went on, really, with everything. But I will say early on, I just didn't really feel as locked in as I have been in spring. I don't know if maybe having a couple extra days off had something to do with that, but my overall feel for my pitches wasn't what it has been.”
According to MLB's Statcast data, Gausman's fastball averaged 92.3 mph Sunday. Last year, his lowest game average was 94.2 mph Sept. 26 against the Tampa Bay Rays, according to FanGraphs. His softest fastballs were measured at 89.3 mph — the slowest fastball he's ever thrown, according to the Baseball-Savant.com.
Both manager Buck Showalter and Gausman said there was nothing physical that could have contributed to it, and pointed out that velocity isn’t everything. But the results were fitting for what he was working with Sunday.
“You look back at the command, where the balls were, where he was trying to throw them,” Showalter said. “The first ball of the game was supposed to be down and away, it was middle-middle — actually a little bit down, where he really hits the ball well. Kevin has been really effective last year at that velocity. That's more about location, command of the pitches — just wasn't very crisp.”
Said Gausman: “I've pitched up here at 91, 92 [mph] and had success. Obviously it's a little easier, the harder you throw, but at the same time, it's all about location.”
After Dozier's leadoff home run, Gausman walked first baseman Joe Mauer, who advanced on a bunt single by left fielder Eddie Rosario and scored on a bloop double to left field by shortstop Eduardo Escobar. Rosario scored on a wild pitch — the first of two for Gausman on the day — and center fielder Byron Buxton singled to score Escobar shortly after. Before the Orioles took a hack, a fruitless endeavor Sunday, they trailed 4-0.
“Dozier just kind of ambushed me the first pitch,” Gausman said. “I was trying to throw a fastball down and away, knew he was going to swing at the first pitch. He's kind of done that the whole series. I just threw it right in his wheelhouse and he was able to put a good swing on it. Other than that, obviously, the wild pitch doesn't help and brings in a run. Then I get Buxton 2-0 and throw him way too good of a fastball for 2-0 and he slapped it the other way.”
Gausman had a three-batter second inning, but third baseman Miguel Sanó hit a 92-mph fastball over the scoreboard in right field to open the third inning, and three batters later, Escobar sat back on a split-fingered fastball and drove it to center field for another home run.
The fourth inning was ultimately better — Gausman got swinging strikes with his splitter and slider, both of which were good pitches Sunday — but left a fastball over the plate that Mauer doubled into the left-field corner.
Five of the seven hits Gausman allowed — including three for extra bases — came on the fastball, a pitch he struggled to locate for much of the early part of 2017.
While Gausman learned at the end of last season to change speeds on his fastball and use it effectively in the lower velocity bands, the pitch lacked the life or location required to do that Sunday.
Days like Sunday will be discouraging not only for the short-term impact on the team and its relief corps with an inflexible roster and no off days in sight, but for what it does to Gausman as the season begins.
It took months for the change in his delivery that pitching coach Roger McDowell to take hold last year, and once he locked in his fastball command, he was able to effectively throw it in the low-90s as opposed to trying to blow hitters away because he located it well.
That’s still the ideal for him, with big velocity in his arm for when he needs it but effectiveness at any speed. But days like Sunday challenge that.
“It's one game against a really good team,” Showalter said. “I know people think the past is always going to be because of it. Kevin's a good pitcher. He showed that last year and the year before.”