St. PETERSURG, Fla. — Listening to Kevin Gausman dissect his 2017 season, it's clear that the Orioles right-hander has pored over his numbers trying to pinpoint anything that can explain this year's inconsistency.
When Gausman looks at his body of work, one thing stands out — that he will go into his last start of the year in Sunday's season finale with the same number of innings he had at the end of 2016 (179 2/3), but it's taken him three more starts to reach that mark.
"That kind of goes to show you what the problem is, with not going deep into games," Gausman said.
Gausman, 26, expressed his frustration with this season after his penultimate start Tuesday at the Pittsburgh Pirates, who shelled him for six runs in four innings. One of the reasons he will receive one more start in Sunday's meaningless finale is to have the opportunity to head into the offseason on a positive note
"We had the opportunity for him to not pitch again, but [pitching coach] Roger [McDowell] and I [wanted him to]," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He might not make it out of the second inning on Sunday, but I like the fact that he wants it. He says this is the best he's felt all year, the last month or so, which is good, too.
"He's a driven guy. Gaus doesn't do this just to be competitive and have some good ones and just [say] that's the way baseball is. Everything is a little learning experience. It shows you a little something."
One start, however, won't take away from how vexing this season has been for Gausman. The Orioles' 2012 first-round draft pick was coming off a strong second half last season, posting a 3.10 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break, and earned the Opening Day start this year after right-hander Chris Tillman landed on the disabled list to open the season.
But Gausman struggled out of the gate, unable to complete six innings in four of his first five starts, posting a 7.50 ERA during that stretch. It didn't get better for Gausman throughout the first half. Fifteen starts into the season, he still had a 6.60 ERA, and at that point no other qualified major league starter had allowed more base runners than Gausman. He led the majors with a 1.92 WHIP.
Gausman was able to rebound in the second half of the season. After his first start out of the break — when he allowed eight runs in three innings against the Chicago Cubs — Gausman settled down for a 2.82 ERA over his 13 starts since. Still, he spent his entire second half climbing back to respectability.
"I think everybody at this level is going to have their ups and downs, and I look back on 2015 and I thought I had a terrible year in 2015 — made 20 starts and had a [4.25 ERA]," Gausman said. "I remember after that season thinking, 'Man, this is the first time I've had a 4.00 ERA in my life.' That was tough to deal with, and then I pitched well last year and kind of felt like I was on the right track. So yeah, it sucks, but there's always things you can learn from it.
"At the break, I kind of had to tell myself, everything I did to get to this point, it's already happened. I have a decision to make to either keep fighting or throw in the towel and give up on this season. That's one thing that I'm proud about, that I've been healthy enough to start all  games that I have.
Even with his strong second half, Gausman's season totals include the highest hits per nine innings (10.1) and walks per nine innings (3.6) of his career. Over his first four seasons as a big league starter, Gausman had a 1.283 WHIP, but this season his WHIP is 1.519.
The base runners he allowed were certainly a recipe for disaster, and Gausman has expressed frustration with his inability to put hitters away with two strikes, a result of some misplaced pitches at ill-timed moments.
When Gausman had success last season, he was able to locate his fastball down and away as both a put-away pitch and one behind in the count. He couldn't lean on that pitch this season, especially in the first half, and that led to hitters' counts and walks.
"I think it all starts with command of my fastball," Gausman said. "It's no wonder that the games where I walked just one guy or less, those are the games that I usually pitch well in. So for me, looking at the second half of last year, that's one thing I did really well — pound the strike zone and going after hitters. My first half this year, I didn't do that well at all. Started doing a better job of it in the second half, but overall I think that was the biggest thing that was missing."
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Gausman points to his number of short outings as one major thing he needs to correct next season. He failed to finish five innings in 10 of his 33 starts, one of which he was ejected in the second inning.
"If I can even have half of those starts that aren't like that and get to six innings at least, I'm looking at getting close to 200 innings," Gausman said. "That's kind of the difference there."
So no matter the result Sunday, Gausman will look at this year as dissatisfying.
"I just didn't step up," Gausman said. "I got off to a bad start in April. When you give up  earned runs in April, it's kind of tough to fight back and turn your season around. But yeah, that was the biggest thing. My first two months were really bad.
"But that's the most frustrating part, knowing that in the second half, I pitched as good as I'm capable of pitching. I believe I can pitch even better than that, but it's frustrating when you get off to a bad start like that. Obviously, I was on the highest of highs [coming in] because I had a great year last year, and I helped us get to the playoffs, and then got the Opening Day nod, and then I just didn't step up."