As the Orioles approached the mathematical midway point of the season Sunday afternoon, manager Buck Showalter has often said the key to turning this season around in the second half will be getting deeper and more consistent outings from his starting rotation.
And as they reached the 81-game mark after a 7-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in their final game at Camden Yards before the All-Star break, the Orioles offered a glimpse of how dominating they can be when backed by a strong starting pitching performance.
As Showalter has said many times, tempo is everything.
Right-hander Kevin Gausman, who spent most of the season struggling to find his form of last year's strong second half, had his best start of the season, throwing seven shutout innings and allowing just four base runners (two singles, two walks) while striking out a season-high nine batters.
Feeding off Gausman's tempo, the Orioles offense was opportunistic against Tampa Bay starter Alex Cobb, taking a four-run lead by putting base runners on early, moving them over and driving them in with home runs.
And even though the Orioles (40-41) sit one game under .500 at the halfway point — they left Baltimore after Sunday's game to play their final seven games before the All-Star break on the road in Milwaukee and Minnesota — it left players with a positive reminder of this team's promise.
"I think today was a good indication of what it looks like when guys are playing to their potential and contributing to the ballclub," designated hitter Mark Trumbo said.
Third baseman Manny Machado hit a three-run homer that inning, and Trumbo's solo blast in the fourth was his second in his past three games, a sign the Orioles can provide an offensive surge that this team has been on the wrong side of too many times this season in some lopsided losses.
"When we get good performances from the starting pitcher, timely hitting and our bullpen comes in and shuts it down, it's usually a 'W' for the Birds," catcher Caleb Joseph said.
But Gausman was the plug for the Orioles offense, working ahead and putting the Rays away quickly to get the Orioles hitters back into the dugout. Taking advantage of Tampa Bay's aggressiveness, Gausman induced lots of weak contact, inducing seven groundouts while missing bats with a splitter that drew 10 swing-and-misses.
'It felt good to play behind Gausy today and the job he did today on the mound," Machado said. "He went out there and pounded the zone today and threw strikes and kept us in the game. It allowed us to have the opportunity to go out there to do what we did. … It helps. They're giving us every opportunity to get back in the dugout and do something, do some damage as a team. We have a powerful team, we have some guys who can get on base and then guys that with one swing can break something loose. So they're giving us all the opportunity that they can."
The Orioles have been ravaged by injuries in the first half of the season. They've been without closer Zach Britton, starting pitcher Chris Tillman, shortstop J.J. Hardy and first baseman Chris Davis at some point in the first half, but Showalter makes sure that isn't used as an excuse for the team's inconsistent play. Instead, he points to the rotation, which held its own by posting a respectable 4.06 ERA in the first 32 games as the Orioles ran out to a 22-10 start. Since then, Orioles starters have a 6.75 ERA.
"It's something we've talked to the pitchers about," Showalter said. "You can only have great tempo if you're pitching well. There are some exceptions. But I think some of the crispness of the defense is directly related to it. We're on and off the field in three hitters."
“It’s more than just the ability to win a game,” Showalter pondered before the game. “There’s a residual effect to that. So there’s a lot of things to base off that. So regardless of who we get back [from injury] and how we do that, if we aren’t more consistent in that, it’s going to be a challenge. But the potential is there. We saw it in April.”
Gausman was no-nonsense early, getting through the first inning on just eight pitches, including seven strikes. He ran into trouble the following inning after walking leadoff hitter Logan Morrison on four pitches and then allowing him to move to second on a passed ball, but went into attack mode, striking out Steven Souza Jr. swinging on a splitter and Tim Beckham swinging on a 2-2 chase-pitch fastball before getting out of the inning on a flyout by Tyler Featherston.
“You know, just fastball command,” Gausman said. “Obviously being able to put guys away with it also. Had a good feel for my split and my changeup and even my slider, too. I think my first-pitch strikes were pretty good, too, so you know, getting ahead always helps.”
After Gausman retired the Rays in order in the third during a stretch of nine of 10 batters retired, the Orioles took advantage of Cobb. Joseph singled to open the inning, Rubén Tejada was hit by a pitch and No. 9 hitter Joey Rickard moved both runners into scoring position with a bunt.
Leadoff hitter Seth Smith hit a comebacker to Cobb, who looked Joseph back to third, but sailed a throw over Morrison’s head to score Joseph.
After watching a first-pitch fastball tail inside and catch the plate for a strike, Machado jumped on a similar pitch that didn’t have the same bite, sending it into the left-field stands for his 16th homer of the season. Getting Machado — who has shown signs of breaking out of his season-long slump several times this season, but hasn’t been able to shake it — going in the second half will be another key.
From there, the Orioles followed their original blueprint for success. Gausman gave way to the bullpen, which didn’t have to worry about every pitch. The only Tampa Bay run came on a homer by catcher Jesus Sucre off Mychal Givens in the eighth, but other than that, everything went the Orioles way.
Showalter credited Gausman for setting the tempo early.
“I thought that [first inning] set the tone,” Showalter said. “A little part of the game, Joey's sac bunt and running the ball out. It makes the pitcher hurry. You speed up the clock a little bit.”
The Orioles then left Baltimore for the final time before the All-Star break hoping to build on the formula that led to success Sunday.
“We’re just trying to do some good things for our ballclub and we know we’ve had a couple bad months and a couple bad weeks,” Machado said. “It’s just a part of the grind, and we’re going to do come back out here and do everything possible to be where we want to be at. We know we’re a better team than this and it’s just a matter of going out there producing.”