Kevin Gausman's late start to the season after opening the year on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis didn't take away from the lofty expectations he made for himself on the mound. With all the pitch count and innings restrictions finally lifted from Gausman, he has been focused on emerging as the front-line starter the Orioles believe he can become.
His major league pitching education has been focused on the idea that mid-90s heat only goes so far, and that his command of his secondary pitches will be the key to his success. And as Gausman had perhaps his best start as a major leaguer Thursday in the Orioles' 1-0, 10-inning victory over the New York Yankees at Camden Yards, it was a fitting example of getting results by relying on his off-speed arsenal.
In his third start since coming off the DL on April 25, Gausman allowed just three base runners — two singles and a double — over eight scoreless innings in his finest performance since his return.
The Yankees reached scoring position just once against Gausman and he faced just two over the minimum number of batters.
"I knew the first couple outings he was going to be carrying a lot of fastballs because he had a fresh arm and had done a lot of things to get there," manager Buck Showalter said. "Tonight, the first inning or two it wasn't there but he was able to go get it when he needed it. He really pitched tonight. … Track-record wise, that's a tough lineup to go through [because there are] a lot of left-handed hitters, [but] there wasn't any point in the game when you thought he got out of whack command-wise."
Gausman didn't need much more than his four-seam fastball Thursday night — a lot of hard swings by Yankees hitters led to seven flyouts. But the key to Gausman's outing was how well he utilized his split-finger changeup to keep the Yankees off balance. He threw more sinkers than usual, and sprinkled in a slider, but the splitter was the difference maker.
"It was really good," Gausman said. "It got better as the game went on. I threw some really good ones when I needed to. I left a couple up, but fortunately they took them for strikes. Going into the game, I knew there were a lot of lefties. … I felt like I used my defense more than I ever have tonight."
That's been another big part of Gausman's graduation, growing comfortable with pitching to contact. He struck out just four batters Thursday while walking none, but used the Yankees' aggressiveness to his advantage.
"I wish it was that easy," Gausman said. "They were swinging early. Later on, when I got my strikeouts is when I got deeper in the count. I would love if every guy went up there and swung at the first pitch. But these guys are veteran hitters, so what they'll do a lot is mix and match. Some at bats they'll come up there hacking, other times they'll take the first two pitches no matter what."
Gausman's outing was his deepest scoreless outing of his career, besting a 7 2/3-inning outing against the Atlanta Braves on July 27, 2015. His game score — a statistic that determines the strength of a pitcher's outing — of 80 was the highest by an Orioles pitcher since Ubaldo Jimenez received an 83 on Aug. 8, 2015.
He retired nine of the first 10 Yankees batters he faced before Starlin Castro's leadoff double in the fourth inning. It was the hardest-hit ball off Gausman, a rope down the left-field line. But otherwise the Yankees were frustrated with weak contact and high flyouts.
Gausman's splitter was particularly effective against a Yankees lineup that included four left-handed batters and three switch-hitters. Gausman had utilized the pitch more against left-handers in the past, throwing it around 15 percent of the time against lefties in his first two starts (compared to 9.19 percent overall). But against the Yankees on Thursday night, Gausman used his splitter at an incredibly high rate.
Twenty-five of Gausman's 72 pitches to left-handed hitters Thursday were splitters (34.7 percent), the most he has used that pitch to lefties since throwing it 26 percent of the time against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 20, 2015.
"I always feel confident in it, but some games it's there, and some games you've gotta try to find out," Gausman said. "Today it was there and really it just stayed with me. I had a good feel for it. Sometimes, it'll start to cut. Tonight it didn't cut at all, which was good."
While lineups in the American League East aren't as lefty-heavy as they've been in previous years, the Yankees are the one team that lines up lots of lefties, and Gausman has had success against them.
After Thursday's start, Gausman owns a 2.31 career ERA in 12 career appearances (six starts) against the Yankees.
"He was something, wasn't he?" Showalter said of Gausman. "He was solid. I think the most innings he had been this year was six. It was tough taking him out of the game. We thought about taking him out after the seventh, but his pitch count was low. He didn't seem to be struggling, obviously. He was good. … He fought through some shoulder problems. … I really want to get Kevin into a routine as soon as we can and see if we can get the return he's capable of."