ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.
--Orioles rookie Kevin Gausman knew his introduction to the major leagues wouldn't be easy, but he also didn't think it would be this tough.
Making the jump from Double-A, the Orioles' much-heralded pitching prospect knew he'd be forced to make adjustments on the fly. He knew his mistakes would be magnified.
And now after four major league starts — and after suffering another early outing — the 22-year-old right-hander said he needs to go back to what made him the prospect the Orioles know he is.
In the Orioles' 8-0 shutout loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday, Gausman lasted just 4 1/3 innings, allowing seven runs on eight hits. He struck out six batters, his most in the big leagues, but all three walks he issued ended up scoring.
Meanwhile, the vaunted Orioles offense has gone vacationing in Florida. The Orioles were held to four hits on Saturday and have managed just six hits in the first two games of the series at Tropicana Field. The Orioles have scored just one run over the team's last 23 innings dating back to their series finale in Houston on Thursday.
"It's not one of those things where you just say, it's just one of those things that teams go through,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “No, you don't do that. Obviously, they have very good pitching and that's why they've been so successful for a good period of time now. We'll see another good one tomorrow. That's why they call it the big leagues.”
Saturday's effort marked the first time the Orioles were held to four hits or less in consecutive games since the final two games of the regular season last year also against the Rays.
For the first time this season, the Orioles (34-28) fell into fourth place in the American League East, leapfrogged by a surging Rays team that has won 10 of its last 13 games. After taking two of three from the Rays in their first trip to the Trop in the season-opening series of this season, the Orioles have lost five straight against Tampa Bay.
On Saturday, the Orioles went without a baserunner after J.J. Hardy's single in the fifth. Rays pitchers retired the final 15 Orioles of the game.
But Gausman's continued struggles were paramount. Coming off his best start of his young big-league career — he held the heavy-hitting Tigers to one run over six innings for his first major-league quality start — Gausman couldn't build on that success.
Gausman (0-3) got ahead of hitters often — he threw 14 of 24 first-pitch strikes — and he kept Rays hitters off balance with his changeup in two-strike counts, but an aggressive Rays lineup took advantage of pitches he left up in the zone.
“I knew when I came up here there were going to be some things I needed to change,” Gausman said. “I didn't know how long it was going to take for me to be changing things, but obviously right now I need to get back to what my strengths are, and that's [getting] ground balls. For as much sink I get on my fastball, I should have more ground balls. That's something that's frustrating. I'm up in the zone more than I usually am.”
Gausman, who owns a 8.84 ERA through four starts, is learning quickly that the more he continues to leave pitches up in the zone, the more early outings he will have.
“He's got great stuff,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. “I think he's learning as he goes right now. That's one of the downfalls of being called up at a young age. You have to learn as you go. We trust in his stuff and the fact that he's going to go out and throw strikes. That's one of the things that we want — a guy who is going to pound the strike zone. If he's going to get hit, he's going to get hit. Eventually, he'll make an adjustment.”
Two of the first three runs the Rays scored off Gausman — Evan Longoria's first-inning single and a second-inning single by Ben Zobrist — came with two outs. The other run that led to an early 3-0 hole was put on base by a one-out walk in the second.
Gausman went on to retire the next eight of nine, but the game escalated in the Rays' five-run fifth inning. Gausman retired the first batter of the inning, but then walked Longoria, allowed a single to James Loney and walked Desmond Jennings to load the bases before he was pulled from the game after 90 pitches.
"He made some really good pitches and had a couple balls fall in against him,” Showalter said of Gausman. “Maybe I'm being too positive in some people's minds but I'm OK with him today. Just not much margin for error when you know you're not scoring runs. But I think he's got a chance to be a really good pitcher. We've just got to continue to help him tweak a few things, and he'll get it done."
After Gausman was pulled, former Oriole Luke Scott then laced a three-run triple off reliever T.J. McFarland, taking a 1-2 pitch down the right-field line to clear the bases. All three of those runs were charged to Gausman. The next batter, catcher Jose Lobaton, then took McFarland's next delivery into the left-center field gap to plate Scott and give the Rays an 8-0 lead.
The Orioles mounted their only true threat in the top of the fifth. Trailing 3-0 at the time, they appeared on the verge of breaking through against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, who yielded just four hits over six shutout innings, when they snapped his streak of 10 straight retired batters with back-to-back singles by Matt Wieters and Hardy to open the inning.
But the Orioles wouldn't score in the inning. In fact, those would be the Orioles' final hits of the game.
“As the season progresses, you're going to have high and lows,” said Davis, who was 0-for-3 Saturday and is 0-for-7 with five strikeouts in the series. “Obviously, the offense isn't going to be able to continue to swing like we have all year. There are going to be times when we have to scratch out a few runs and try to win a close ball game. Obviously, they're throwing the ball well and we need to take advantage of every guy we get in scoring position.”
As for Gausman, he admitted he's frustrated, but said his confidence hasn't wavered.
“I feel like I'm throwing good pitches, and sometimes I get the outcome that I hoped, and sometimes I don't,” Gausman said. “A little frustrating, but I feel good. … Mentally and physically I feel good, and I feel like I have the stuff to be here. I just haven't produced.
“Obviously, this hasn't gone the way I would have hoped,” Gausman added. “Obviously, I wanted to come up here and hit the ground running and you know, win my first four starts, but it hasn't been like that, I'm just trying to battle every day and trying to get back to what I've been doing."