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Gausman gives away another big lead as Orioles are swept by Royals

Orioles starter Kevin Gausman looks down after giving up a game-tying three-run home run to Mike Moustakas of the Royals during a five-run fourth inning on May 14, 2017, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Royals won, 9-8, to sweep the three-game series.
Orioles starter Kevin Gausman looks down after giving up a game-tying three-run home run to Mike Moustakas of the Royals during a five-run fourth inning on May 14, 2017, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Royals won, 9-8, to sweep the three-game series. (Brian Davidson / Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman went into this season ready to build on last year's strong second half, but through his first nine starts of 2017, the 26-year-old's season has been an almost constant battle, whether it's been with his control, his mechanics or his morale.

In the Orioles' 9-8 loss to the Kansas City Royals — a defeat that sent the Orioles out of Kansas City having been swept at Kauffman Stadium for the first time in 17 years — Gausman was gift-wrapped a five-run lead as he took the mound for the bottom of the fourth inning.

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His pitch count was already high, having thrown at least 20 pitches in each of his previous three innings, but he wasn't locked in the kind of close game that the Orioles have played in often this year in which one pitch can dictate defeat.

But Gausman managed to give back the entire lead in the fourth inning, allowing six of seven batters to reach base, the big blow being Mike Moustakas' game-tying three-run homer.

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"The biggest thing was this was a game we needed to win, avoiding a sweep," Gausman said. "We get five runs early in the game; I've got to be able to shut the door. Even after I gave up those two runs in the fourth, I've got to find a way to get out of that inning."

Gausman was in a similar situation three starts ago at Yankee Stadium, when he went into the bottom of the sixth inning with a 9-1 lead April 28, but allowed three runs — including a two-run homer to Aaron Judge — in a 20-pitch inning that cut his night short in an eventual 14-11 extra inning loss to the Yankees.

"You know just got to execute better," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "The skills are there. I think mentally and emotionally they want to do it so badly that sometimes you just can't get to it. Sometimes you've got to try a little less. That sounds crazy."

On Sunday — even though he held a lead throughout his outing — it took Gausman 93 pitches to get through his 31/3-inning outing. Throughout the series, the Royals worked Orioles starters' pitch counts by fouling balls off and working deep counts. It's the formula they've used for years now, and on Sunday, Gausman was unable to get the Royals hitters to expand the strike zone.

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"You have a very aggressive team up there that doesn't strike out a lot," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "You've got to be able to throw chase pitches and may have been a scenario where he was in the zone a little too much, especially with two strikes, but he's better than what he showed today, and I know he feels that way, too. He just has to find a way to limit the damage there in the fourth and get on back on track in the fifth because I don't think his pitches were that high."

It's easy to say Gausman's struggles were the result of command problems. It's obvious that his misses are finding too much off the plate — whether they are high fastballs that drop into the upper part of the zone or splitters that hang in the lower part of the zone — but Gausman's biggest problem Sunday was his ability to put hitters away.

"We've had that problem a lot here lately," Showalter said. "You look out there and it seems like every one of our starters are averaging 20 pitches per inning. And our relief pitchers, too. I don't care if you've got 10 guys in your bullpen, that's not a good recipe. We've got to do a little better job of taking advantage of the counts in our favor."

He worked ahead of hitters, getting 0-1 and two-strike counts early, but couldn't locate a pitch to get hitters in an aggressive Royals batting out. Five of the nine hits off Gausman came with two strikes, and four were on fastballs that found too much of the zone. Hitters against Gausman had 10 plate appearances of five or more pitches, six that were six pitches or deeper.

"It's frustrating, but [that's what happens] when you put yourself in that many deep counts," Gausman said. "I think they started eliminating my curveball early in the game. When I get in those situations where I have to throw a strike, I think the hitters pretty much know what they're going to get. That's the biggest thing. They really didn't miss any pitches that were in the strike zone and even some that were out of the strike zone — they kind of went out there and got it."

What magnified Sunday's struggles was the fact that Gausman entered the day seemingly heading in the right direction. He was coming off his best start of the season — a seven-inning, two-run outing against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night at Camden Yards. He seemed to have corrected some mechanical struggled he pointed to after a series of three starts in which he allowed 18 earned runs over 14 innings.

"I think he definitely is trying to find that rhythm he was in at the end of the season," Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. "That's up to him where he finds it or what it is that kind of makes it click for him. I don't ever doubt the fact that he's going to work to try to find it. He's not a guy that's going to sit there and feel sorry for himself. You take the losses and learn from them and try to make an adjustment."

Gausman said he typically gauges his outings on how well opposing hitters square him up, and in the fourth inning Sunday, three of the five hits against Gausman had exit velocities above 100 mph, including Moustakas' homer, which was hit at 111.6 mph. Two other balls off Gausman — both outs — were hit at 105 mph or above.

"That's how I base my starts off of," Gausman said. "And they were hitting the ball pretty well today. But yeah, I feel like I'm better than I was at the start of the season. Obviously, still scuffling a little bit, but I'll figure it out.

"I'll be all right," he added. "I'll bounce back. I've got another start in a couple days and that's the good thing, that I'm confident enough in myself to know that I'll be able to figure this out. Because I'm not the pitcher that my numbers are showing, so I have to go out there and compete and kind of get back to what I did last year, when I was really going after guys and pounding the bottom half of the strike zone and really keeping guys off balance."

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