Baltimore — It takes a fair amount of circumstance for a pitcher to become an ace in Major League Baseball, from a strong amateur development to excelling in the right situation as a professional.
There’s little doubt that former LSU star and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman has the former. So far, in his most extended stretch as a starter for the division-leading Orioles, Gausman is proving those circumstances aren’t too much for him to handle.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the ace here yet at all, but every time you go out there, you have to have that mentality, that your team expects to win when you’re on the mound,” Gausman said.
So far, the Orioles have done so when Gausman has taken the mound — even in the biggest of matchups. In July alone, Gausman took the ball in a Sunday night, nationally televised game against the Yankees and threw five scoreless innings in a rain-shortened win.
He matched zeros with 2010 Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, keeping the Orioles close against the Seattle ace and allowing the team to win in extra innings. And in a showdown against young Los Angeles Angels star right-hander Garrett Richards, Gausman earned a 4-3 win.
The excitement was palpable a month ago when the Orioles announced Gausman was in the major leagues without an innings limit or pitch count, and rightfully so. Gausman and the Orioles weren’t presumptive enough to call him the team’s ace before he exhausted his rookie eligibility, but both sides know his LSU pedigree and electric arsenal put him on that track.
“That was something that I definitely learned when I was at LSU,” he said. “Being their guy for two years, it was one of those things where you’re expected to win when you take the mound. It builds confidence, and I think you feel it in the way your team plays when you’re on the mound.”
Gausman’s route to the American League pennant race began in Baton Rouge but wasn’t the clear trajectory it appeared it would be when he joined the team’s rotation as a freshman.
He got his feet wet with 14 starts in his first season, and Gausman was the clear-cut ace of the staff as a sophomore, starting on Friday nights and leading the Tigers with a 12-2 record and 2.77 ERA.
“He loved being the guy that was counted on to go out,” Dunn said. “That Friday night game is so huge, especially in college baseball, especially in the SEC. Kevin was phenomenal for us. Every time he toed the mound, you felt like he had a chance to win.”
The 2012 draft had plenty of talented pitchers, but the Orioles’ familiarity with Dunn, their former bullpen coach, made Gausman stand out. Manager Buck Showalter said he knew that unlike pitchers from other schools, the LSU staff did not overuse Gausman.
“He was handled very well,” Showalter said. “Quite frankly, that was part of the discussion in taking him, that we felt like he had been protected properly, and we had a nice dialogue with Alan about him before the draft.”
“We always felt that a college coach should have an obligation and responsibility to maintain, to the best of his ability, the health of the young man,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “We were sending a pretty developed, healthy pitcher into professional baseball.”
After he was drafted fourth overall, Gausman made a handful of appearances for the Orioles’ New York-Penn League team in Aberdeen, Maryland, before joining Double-A Bowie to begin 2013. Gausman made eight starts for Bowie before he was summoned to Baltimore for his first start in the majors.
He struggled in that first stint, going 0-3 in five starts with a 7.66 ERA. He was sent down to Triple-A Norfolk after his fifth start, setting off a nearly yearlong stint where the Orioles seemed to value Gausman’s options more than they valued his development.
He started once in Norfolk, then returned to Baltimore for five relief appearances before going back to Norfolk to work as a starter. When he was summoned back to Baltimore in late August, it was as a reliever.
Gausman said that stretch was as valuable as any in his career.
“I always tell people that’s where I learned how to pitch, coming out of the bullpen last year,” Gausman said. “That’s where I really learned I can compete at this level, and at times, I can dominate at this level. This year, from day one of spring training, that’s what I wanted to take into starting — having more of that reliever mentality. Going at guys, being aggressive, just kind of being a bulldog on the mound.”
He could have pouted, but Dunn’s advice to his players likely stayed with him.
“We talked about roles when he was in college,” Dunn said. “You want guys to just understand that your role is to pitch when you’re given the ball, and go out and do your job. We stress that a lot here, trying to get guys to understand every role is important.”
Still, his role was hardly settled entering 2014. Gausman was sent to Norfolk to both work as a starter but manage his innings for the first part of the season, being summoned for several spot starts along the way. He was part of a dozen transactions before the All-Star break, with the final bringing him to Baltimore for what appears to be for good.
In four starts since he was recalled to replace Ubaldo Jimenez, who went on the disabled list with an ankle injury, Gausman is 3-1 with a 3.97 ERA — blemished only by a 10-2 loss to Oakland.
Jimenez’s return next week would give the Orioles six quality starters for five rotation spots, and Gausman isn’t the only one who has been lights out for most of July. Unlike his time at LSU, his role on the AL East pacesetters isn’t set in stone.
The scale of what he is part of is quite familiar, though.
“It just depends on whether I stay as a starter or whether I’m a reliever,” he said. “There’s all kinds of question marks. It’s just fun being part of something as big as this is.”