Even though Kevin Gausman was the odd man out when Buck Showalter decided his starting rotation for the postseason, the Orioles manager knew the 23-year-old could be a crucial piece out of the bullpen.
That couldn’t have been any truer in Game 2 of the American League Division Series when the right-hander relieved a struggling Wei-Yin Chen in the fourth inning after the Detroit Tigers had suddenly built a 5-2 lead. Not only did Gausman’s work keep the Orioles within striking distance, but he preserved a bullpen that was likely without Andrew Miller and had also seen Darren O’Day, Zach Britton, and Tommy Hunter pitch in the series opener.
“Once I started warming up, I felt pretty good right away,” said Gausman, who made 15 relief appearances as a rookie in 2013. “Usually it takes me a good amount to get loose, but two throws and I was ready to go, ready to get in there. I felt good once I got in the game [and] just tried to establish the fastball in and go from there.”
Throwing fastballs in the high 90s and a nasty split-fingered changeup in the mid-80s, Gausman didn’t allow a run until his final batter of the game, the Victor Martinez double to deep center in the eighth that plated Torii Hunter before Miguel Cabrera was thrown out at the plate by second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In all, Gausman allowed just the one earned run while striking out five and walking one over 3 2/3 innings.
Gausman’s work put him in great company in Orioles postseason history as his five strikeouts were the most by a Baltimore reliever since Moe Drabowsky struck out 11 to earn the win in Game 1 of the 1966 World Series. The young pitcher also recorded 10 swinging strikes, matching Tigers starter Justin Verlander despite throwing 46 fewer pitches.
He didn’t earn the victory, but no pitcher was more important for the Orioles than Gausman on Friday afternoon, unless you count a Detroit bullpen that melted down for a second straight game.
“Kevin has high expectations,” said Showalter about the 2012 first-round pick from Louisiana State. “I mean, this [was] a Friday night pitcher in the SEC. Have you ever been to a Friday night game in Baton Rouge? Obviously [here], there is more people, bigger stage, basically the volume is turned up. You’ve just got to remember to breathe it in. Kevin presented himself really well.”
Needing only one more win to advance to the AL Championship Series, should the Orioles revisit Gausman’s status in the rotation based on how he performed against the Tigers Friday?
In fairness to Chen, who pitched three scoreless innings before melting down in the top of the fourth, nearly everyone acknowledged the difficult task of facing a Detroit lineup that hit .285 against left-handed pitching during the regular season. The Taiwanese lefty pitched to a career-best 3.54 ERA while winning a team-best 16 games this season and shouldn’t be nudged out after faring exactly how many thought he would on Friday.
Gausman’s electric stuff as a starter is even more dangerous in a relief role where he can crank up his fastball for a shorter outing. And it makes an already-terrific Orioles bullpen even better as they compete in October. And he provides a better long-relief option than Ubaldo Jimenez, who probably won’t see the mound unless there’s an injury or blowout situation.
The Orioles hope Gausman’s long-term home is near the top of their starting rotation, but the bullpen appears to be a great fit as they try to advance deep into October.
“We thought he could be a weapon for us in the bullpen in the playoffs,” Showalter said. “Because with their lineup, you’re going to have some challenges pitching to them. It worked out good.”