BALTIMORE — The Orioles lost 2-0 to the Texas Rangers on Thursday to drop their first series in a month, but that wasn’t the biggest story as it relates to the remainder of the 2015 season.
Starting pitcher Kevin Gausman staked an emphatic claim to a spot in the rotation with 6 1/3 scoreless innings, and the Orioles appear ready to accommodate after the continued struggles of Bud Norris in the first half. After Gausman allowed only four hits and matched a career high with seven strikeouts, Buck Showalter said the right-hander will accompany the club to Chicago instead of being optioned back to Triple-A Norfolk as many anticipated.
The Orioles manager didn’t confirm that Gausman would receive another start, but he did announce that Miguel Gonzalez would pitch on Sunday, presumably leaving Norris as the long man in the bullpen for at least the near future. Despite those criticizing the patience he’s shown with Norris — a 15-game winner in 2014 — Showalter saw what we all witnessed from Gausman on Thursday.
“Good, real good,” Showalter said. “He was using both depths with his fastball. Pitching down all the time isn’t always [good]. Good hitters get their arms extended, but he changed eye levels a lot with his fastball, which I thought was really good. It’s something he and [pitching coach Dave Wallace] have been working on. He was really good.”
Of course, Gausman made a strong case for a spot in the starting rotation long before Thursday’s performance against the Rangers. Showalter has pointed to Norris’ track record as evidence to stick with him throughout the first half, but you can only overlook a 6.79 ERA so long while acknowledging Gausman pitched to a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts last season, many of them coming in the second half in the midst of a pennant race.
Even if you didn’t like it, you could understand the organization deferring to the five veterans in the rotation to begin the season — especially with the 2015 money tied into Norris and the long-term commitment made to the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez — but the Orioles were shortsighted in sending Gausman to the bullpen in April. The decision likely played a part in the 2012 first-round pick developing right shoulder tendinitis and missing more than a month of action.
Now, there are no more excuses to hold Gausman back as he’s healthy and once again stretched out as a starter after a few outings in the minors and a solid start in Toronto last month. Pitching on three days’ rest, he turned in a performance on Thursday that was superior to any of Norris’ work during the 2015 season.
“I don’t know if I was making a statement, but I just wanted to pitch well,” said Gausman, who quipped that he packed a bag for Baltimore’s road trip in case he wouldn’t be optioned back to the minors. “That’s all I want to do is pitch, whether it’s here or in Triple A. I just want to pitch and throw a lot of innings. Going on the DL was something I didn’t plan. I wanted this to be the year I would get close to 200 innings, but it’s just not going to happen.
“Right now, I’m just focusing on getting more innings and going out there and competing and helping the team win.”
If the Orioles want to have their best chance to advance to the postseason for the third time in four years, Gausman should be in the starting rotation until he proves he’s not one of their best five starters.
Watching him pitch on Thursday, you were reminded of what he possesses that other pitchers simply do not. Seemingly every time he got to two strikes on a hitter, a fastball sitting comfortably around 94 mph in other counts would explode to 96 or 97 on the radar gun. Gausman also had his best split-changeup of the season, a pitch that’s devastating to left-handed hitters when he’s able to command it.
The development of a breaking pitch — a curveball he began throwing this year for the first time since college — is ongoing, but Gausman’s fastball and split were so strong on Thursday that he didn’t need to throw anything else, including his circle changeup. He may not be a finished product and it hasn’t been the easiest year for him, but Gausman is more than deserving of a spot in the major league rotation.
The time is now.