From his perspective on the top step of the Orioles dugout, manager Buck Showalter could tell early on that Kevin Gausman was carrying a good feeling in Friday's 9-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
As the Orioles search for whatever clues they can that this version of their former first-round draft pick is finally here to stay, perhaps the one that's most telling is that he pitched so well when he wasn't feeling it at all.
"Honestly, when I was warming up today, I just felt like crap, to be honest," he said through a polleny rasp. "I had to really tell myself to focus in. For whatever reason, I just felt a little tired, a little out of it. I needed to get my energy up. It was one of those things where every start is gong to be different — how your body feels, how your arm feels, everything. That's where the whole consistency comes in. … I think my changed delivery allows me to be the same guy every time."
Gausman had no such problems when he cruised through nine innings of scoreless ball his last time out. But he's also been prone to stumbling when getting on these runs. Even he would characterize everything up to this season as too inconsistent for anyone's liking, so what better way to follow up the best start of his career than to help the Orioles win a third game on the trot for the first time this season with 7 1/3 innings of two-run ball against the Rays?
He has been far from the problem this season for the Orioles (11-27). The opposite is true — Gausman has been about as reliable as anyone in their clubhouse this year. And no matter which caveats are attached to his strong performances, he's going to keep it that way.
"I think it's sustainable for the whole season — 35 starts," Gausman said. "That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to be the same guy every time I take the mound, and just try to give us a chance to win."
To this point, the only thing that's been constant is the fact that something has been missing, and that has gone back years. Sometimes, he pitches well and the Orioles don't score for him. Sometimes he loses command of his secondary pitches and sees his fastball hit around. But with his delivery locked in after a pair of changes to keep him on line and over the rubber in the last year, there's plenty to ensure Gausman will be a constant whenever he gets the ball.
Friday's caveat was the 11 hits surrendered — it was the first thing he was asked about despite pitching into the eighth inning for the third time in four starts and holding his opponent to three runs or fewer for the career-high seventh straight time. Many of the hits were on the ground through various Orioles shifts, a handful came off broken bats and only two went for extra bases. The only run the Rays scored off him came in the third inning when Denard Span singled with two outs, went to second when Gausman yanked a splitter for a wild pitch and scored on a fisted single by C.J. Cron.
The Rays (15-20) put two runners on again in the fourth, then in the sixth and chased Gausman with an 11th cheap hit in the eighth. But thanks to his newfound ability to continue to pound the zone and get weak contact on the ground, the only one to come around to score was the final one when Richard Bleier showed his humanity for the first time in a three-run eighth inning.
"A lot of guys in scoring position, but Chance [Sisco] called a great game and the defense behind me, Manny [Machado] made some great plays," Gausman said. "Huge double play that they turned [in the fifth inning] but definitely good to see Manny and [Jonathan] Schoop out there together again."
The amount of hits shows how often Gausman (3-2) was in the zone — the Rays had to swing, because he threw just 21 balls out of 107 pitches. That's what stood out to Showalter.
"More of pitcher mentality instead of a thrower," Showalter said. "He adds and subtracts now, and he made some good pitches on the inner half of the plate, on both sides of the plate.You look at his ball-to-strike ratio — it was almost too good. I looked at it one time and it was like 70-something [strikes], 18 balls. It's borderline too good. I think that gives you an idea of what type of command he's had in these outings."
Gausman is now among the league leaders with 66.1 percent of his pitches going for strikes. He can throw his fastball in the zone because he seldom elevates it unintentionally anymore. Over the years, he's tried to do it with his secondary pitches around the edges, with his fastball varying speeds, and with his breaking ball taking different shapes and names seemingly every year.
"I think with my new change to my delivery, I just feel really confident in throwing any pitch in any count," Gausman said.
He's no longer searching for his fastball velocity, as he hit 95 mph and was regularly 92-93 in the first inning, averaging 93.7 mph on the pitch for the day. He had eight swinging strikes on that and eight on his splitter, the latter accounting for four of his six strikeouts.
And even with the hit parade Friday, he has a 1.196 WHIP through eight starts.
Gausman was a winner Friday because of four Orioles home runs — two from Machado, including a grand slam, plus one apiece from Mark Trumbo and Sisco. Schoop also drove in a run with an RBI double in the sixth inning, his fourth RBI in four games since returning from the disabled list.
The win gave the Orioles three straight for the first time this season.