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Orioles

Orioles' Kevin Gausman opens spring ready to reach 'next level' after 2016 breakout

SARASOTA, FLA. — For all those waiting for young Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman to take the next developmental step on the way to becoming a top-flight starting pitcher, manager Buck Showalter has a news bulletin for you.

He already did.

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"I think he kind of answered those things last year," Showalter said Thursday, right before Gausman took the mound at Ed Smith Stadium and pitched two strong innings against the Minnesota Twins in his first start of the Grapefruit League season.

That certainly wasn't immediately apparent by his 9-12 record in 2016 or the fact that he didn't win a game on the road until Aug. 28. But if ever such obvious appearances were truly deceiving, Gausman was a victim of them.

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It would not have taken a whole lot of additional run support for him to have been competing with No. 1 starter Chris Tillman for the team lead in victories, which is why he seems like such a logical choice to start in place of Tillman on Opening Day.

"Last year? Some luck," Showalter said. "There were a lot of games he pitched really well in and didn't have anything to show for it. So I've said many times, that's one of the last things they have control of, [but] if they consistently pitch well they're going to get their Ws. I think just the help, obviously. I think Kevin's positioned to be as good as he's capable of being. Everything that he's supposed to be exposed to is behind him now to go to that next level."

Gausman wasted no time showing that he was in strong spring form Thursday. He needed just 10 pitches to get a strikeout and two groundouts in the first inning. He allowed a run in the second, but it was the result of a wind-blown opposite-field triple by designated hitter Eddie Rosario that landed just out of a diving Hyun Soo Kim's reach.

"The first time getting out there, the most important thing is how you feel physically," Gausman said, "so I feel good physically. No limitations on my arm, so today's a win. I threw a lot of strikes. I felt like I was moving around my fastball pretty good. Second inning, a little bit different than the first. I got into some deep counts, but I threw some real good sliders, too. So, definitely a good day."

It really is helpful to take a peek behind the superficial numbers from last season. Gausman had a losing record, but he also delivered 10 quality starts in which he ended up with either a loss or a no-decision. He had six quality starts before he recorded his first victory of the year on June 25.

Sure, he started the regular season on the disabled list because of some spring shoulder soreness, but that first win came in his 13th start and he only gave up more than four runs twice in the first 12.

Over the course of the season, he gave up two earned runs or fewer nine times in games he did not win. So, he had every reason to go into the winter proud of his overall performance, but chose his words carefully when asked whether he thought he deserved to have more than a solid 3.61 ERA to hang his cap on.

"That's a tough question," he said. "You always, obviously, want to not try to stick up for yourself too much. It was tough at times. Sometimes, I felt like I threw the ball really good. It kind of seemed like if I gave up two runs, we got one run or something like that. But you can't think about it too much.

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"That's what I did the second half. I just tried to focus on what I could do, and that's going deep into games and giving us a chance to win. If you can do that consistently, I think it's not only going to help you, but it's going to be a lot easier for you to live with yourself."

Gausman acknowledged after Tillman's injury opened up an opportunity for someone else to start Opening Day that he would love the opportunity to be the first starter out of the gate in April. But he said on Thursday that he just needs to be ready for anything.

"It's crossed my mind," he's said. "I don't really think about it. The last week, I've had some people texting me and asking some questions about it, but I don't know anything. I can just go out there and get my work in now and be ready for whenever I do pitch, whether it's the first game or the sixth or seventh. There's no way of knowing, so right now it's just about preparation."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop


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