Their time as minor league teammates was short, but Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy talked about reaching this moment — pitching together in the Orioles' starting rotation — four years ago when they were both pitching for Double-A Bowie in the Eastern League playoffs.
Bundy was finishing a strong first season as a professional that would end with a September call-up to the majors. Gausman, just a few months removed from finishing his college career at LSU, was promoted to Double-A to get a feel for pitching in the postseason.
And while they weren't teammates in the minors for long, Gausman and Bundy knew they'd always be paired together as the franchise's two most promising pitchers, the organization's home-grown hopes resting on their talented right arms since the Orioles made them the fourth overall draft picks in consecutive years.
Their careers took remarkably different turns from there. Bundy made two major league relief appearances for the Orioles that September, but the next season was wiped out by Tommy John surgery, starting an injury-plagued three years that limited him to 17 minor league appearances.
Gausman was also fast-tracked through the minor leagues, but handled with extreme care in the majors. He pitched in the bullpen and rode the shuttle between the majors and Triple-A Norfolk before finally finding his footing in the major league rotation with no restrictions this season.
And now, after pitching the first half of the season in relief, Bundy, 23, will join Gausman, 25, in the starting rotation, making his first major league start on Sunday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field – a 'hallelujah' moment for Orioles fans who have been waiting for the team's top young pitchers to reach their mark.
Down the stretch, the Orioles will lean on their prized young arms to help them get to the postseason.
"Yeah, this is pretty cool," Gausman said. "This is something that me and Bundy talked about when we were playing together in Bowie, that hopefully one day we'd be pitching together in the rotation hopefully for years to come. I think we both saw this coming sooner than later, but [Bundy's] been through a lot. But I know they've done really good by him. They've been pitching him every five days. They kept him on that track and built him up, so now it's about how he feels and just going out to compete."
The Orioles accelerated their timetable for Bundy, who had to open the season out of the bullpen because he was out of minor league options and had thrown just 63 1/3 innings over the past three seasons because of injury. It was possible that Bundy could have built his innings count high enough to be a starting option late in the season, but it seemed more likely that the Orioles were going to put him in a position to compete for a starting role next spring.
This season, Bundy has not thrown an outing of more than three innings or 57 pitches.
He has sparkled in relief, especially over the past month as the team has been able to keep him on a starter's schedule, pitching him every fifth of sixth day. And with the first-place Orioles needing to upgrade a rotation with a 5.15 ERA, the team believes now is the time to see if Bundy can help in a starting role.
With the non-waiver trade deadline looming on July 31 – and with the starting pitching market more lucrative than it is deep – promoting Bundy to the rotation might be the best option to improve the rotation.
"We'll find out," manager Buck Showalter said. "Like I said, Tampa will tell us. The next team will tell us. We've been adjusting since Sarasota, the first day. We take information in and try to put our best foot forward. Right now, we think Dylan is potentially our best foot forward."
Both pitchers cut their teeth in the bullpen. Gausman mostly worked in relief in his first major league season in 2013. After starting 20 games the following year, Gausman began the 2015 season in the bullpen before joining the rotation for good.
"We've gone through every possible thing with them," Showalter said. "You think about it, the ups and downs, managing their innings, getting them right. They're both ready. It's time. We've done everything right. I know one thing: [Bundy's] not thinking about [his elbow] anymore. That's what I was waiting to see, whether he wouldn't cross his mind about his arm."
Bundy's situation was unique. Because he signed a major league deal when he was drafted out of high school in 2011, he had exhausted all of his minor league options, so he had to make the major league roster out of camp. Showalter almost treated him like a Rule 5 draft pick, letting him pitch in a long relief role. And while he remained a multiple-inning reliever, Bundy became a valuable stopgap in pressure situations.
"I think they were different situations," said setup man Darren O'Day, who mentored both pitchers as relievers. "Kevin learned quite a bit in the bullpen, just how to kind of be a reliever and he learned what the major leagues is all about. I think that helped Kevin in some tight situations later in the game where he's been able to turn it up a notch. I think Kevin is still getting better. Dylan is a guy we knew his time in the bullpen was short. He's got starter written all over him. He's just got the uncanny ability to control the baseball. It was just a matter of getting enough innings where he could get back in the rotation. I think he had to learn what it was like to be in the big leagues and also learn that it was like to feel good [physically]."
The Orioles have seen Bundy (2-1, 3.08 ERA) take significant steps forward pitching in relief. Over his first seven appearances, he had just two strikeouts over nine innings, and opponents were hitting .314 off him. His strikeout numbers went up, but so did his ERA as the Orioles tried to figure out the best way to use him.
Then, the team committed to giving Bundy four or five days rest between outings, and that seemed to get him into a comfort zone. His fastball velocity went up two miles per hour, and he flourished mixing in his changeup and curveball. In six appearances since June 9, Bundy hasn't allowed an earned run (one unearned run) in 14 1/3 innings and has held opposing hitters to a .212 average. He has 19 strikeouts in that span, including strikeouts on all seven outs in a scoreless 2 1/3-inning outing in his past appearance on July 6 at Dodger Stadium.
That appearance in the Orioles' 14-inning win was an eye-opener. Pitching in a tie game, Bundy stranded four baserunners, including the bases loaded in the seventh. Even though he had to work himself out of his own jams, he seemingly teased with a talented Dodgers lineup, recording his first two strikeouts on changeups before overpowering the L.A. hitters with his fastball, dialing it to up to 98 mph.
"That would be awesome to see that every fifth day," O'Day said of that outing. "So let's see him go out there and be the pitcher he can be. Having two young talented starters like that, it's every team's dream. At some point, you've got to give a guy a shot, so now's as good a time as any."
And now he joins Gausman, whose 59 career major league starts make him the greybeard of the two. Gausman (1-6, 4.15 ERA) opened this season on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis and was winless in his first 12 starts, but he has been the team's second most dependable starter behind ace Chris Tillman. But he's entering the second half of the season seeking more consistency, especially early in his starts. Gausman's ERA in his first three innings is 4.60, including nine runs (and five homers) in the first inning.
"If I get rid of that, it's probably a totally different story," Gausman said. "My ERA is a little lower and my innings are probably more too. I think there's been a ton of starts where I've looked back on it and said, 'Man, two pitches.' It's been a little frustrating, but you try to grind as much as you can. But I feel like I'm right there and if a couple things go my way in a couple of starts and it's a different story."
So the Orioles' second-half fate could end up hinging on their top two former prospects coming through to bolster the team's rotation. Showalter always says that second-half upgrades have to first come from within. And above all, by making Bundy a starter, the Orioles have decided that the future is now.
"It's good that we have so many home-grown guys," Gausman said. "People forget that [Matt] Wieters was a first rounder, Manny [Machado] was a first rounder. Bundy, myself, so we have a lot of Orioles home-grown, farm-system guys. That's always cool. I think we kind of have a sense of pride being that this is the only team we've been with. We want to win for them and obviously we're going to compete our [butts] off for our team."