The Orioles avoid the sweep by beating the Blue Jays, 5-3. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)
Just as unfamiliar as the Orioles' quiet bats this week against the Toronto Blue Jays in their typically prolific playground at Camden Yards was the steady strength of their starting pitchers.
With six innings of three-run ball for his first quality start of the season, right-hander Kevin Gausman made it three in a row for the Orioles starters in Wednesday night's 5-3 win after Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner covered for a beaten-up bullpen with seven innings apiece Monday and Tuesday.
"Pitching six innings against an American League East lineup is hard, and Kevin did it tonight," manager Buck Showalter said. "All the things that happen in a game, the starting pitcher is the difference maker."
The Orioles didn't have those kind of stretches often last season. There were just two such series at home all year.
No one could account for the offense to struggle the way it has, but with Gausman's effort Wednesday, the Orioles head off on another seven-game road trip with their rotation looking upward. Alex Cobb is on the horizon, Gausman is finding his footing, and Bundy and Cashner have started the season strongly.
"Overall, it was good," Gausman said. "I felt like I got better as the game went on. My command got better. I felt like even misses were in the direction that I was trying to do."
It looked as if Gausman might not hold up his part of the deal, though. The Blue Jays scored on him in the first inning — he hasn't posted a clean first inning in three starts so far — though he came close to getting out of it unscathed. He allowed a leadoff single to left fielder Curtis Granderson, but a fielder's choice and a popup gave him two quick outs. Gausman then walked Steve Pearce and allowed a single to Kevin Pillar to put him down 1-0.
"I feel like I've done that every start, obviously, so far, but really in my career, that first inning has kind of killed me," Gausman said. "I need to figure that out."
From that point until the fifth inning, the Blue Jays only had one hit — a two-out double by third baseman Yangervis Solarte. Staked to a 3-1 lead after the Orioles bats finally broke through against Marco Estrada after again going hitless in the first three innings, backup catcher Luke Maile singled off Gausman to open the fifth. He went to second on a walk by Justin Smoak and scored on another hit by Solarte.
Shortstop Aledmys Díaz homered with two outs in the sixth inning to cut the Orioles' deficit to 4-3 before Gausman recorded his seventh and final strikeout against No. 9 hitter Gift Ngoepe to close the book.
"We had some situations we really could have opened it up, but I thought the last out of the sixth inning from Kevin was big," Showalter said. "That kind of set up the rest of the game for us out of the bullpen."
Richard Bleier, Darren O'Day, and Brad Brach each had scoreless innings of relief to close the game out.
As in his first two starts, Gausman didn't have the consistent premium fastball velocity that has been his calling card. His fastball averaged 91.8 mph, and he reached back to 95 mph when he needed it. But he had five of his seven strikeouts on his splitter, and made up for his lack of velocity with guile yet again.
"Getting better," Showalter said. "As you notice, his fastball got better. When he had to reach back toward the end, he went and got it. … His command was better, I thought, for the most part."
He ended up charged with three earned runs on six hits with three walks and seven strikeouts, bringing his ERA from 8.00 to 6.60 on the season. Combined with seven innings of two-run ball from Bundy in a loss Monday and Cashner's seven shutout innings Tuesday, the Orioles' rotation has allowed five runs in 20 innings this series with 23 strikeouts while yielding 14 hits and eight walks.
While those three seem to be on track, the pending arrival of Cobb — who is scheduled to pitch Saturday in Boston after a successful bullpen session Wednesday at Double-A Bowie — erases one questionable spot in the rotation. Chris Tillman gets another chance to prove himself when the Orioles open a four-game set with the high-flying Red Sox on Friday.
That sets the Orioles up well, in theory, to make series like this an expectation for the rotation, not an aberration.
"I'm hoping once Alex settles in and guys can stay healthy that we can really kind of find our step," Showalter said.
Said Gausman: "That's one thing I've said since Day One when we got Cashner and Cobb. It's just two more veteran guys that are going to eat innings, you know? Every fifth day, they're going to give your chance to win. In the AL East, that's really all you can ask for."