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Flamethrower Kevin Gausman Must Thrive as Ace for Orioles to Reach Postseason

The Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation is a mess bordering on a full-blown garbage fire. That's no secret, and it's certainly not hyperbole. 

Kevin Gausman to the rescue?

That sentence contains a question mark for good reason. Gausman's ERA hovered over 4.00 for most of August, and he's lost five of his last 10 decisions.

But the hard-throwing right-hander has strung together two strong starts, which counts as a mini-revelation in Baltimore.

On Sunday, Gausman threw seven shutout innings against the New York Yankees, scattering seven hits and striking out nine as Baltimore prevailed, 5-0, in the Bronx.

Those same Yankees pounded the Orioles on Friday and Saturday, scoring a combined 27 runs in a pair of embarrassing blowouts.

So Gausman's effort Sunday wasn't merely a notch in the win column; it was salve in a gaping wound.

It was also, incredibly, his first win away from Camden Yards in more than two years, as MASNsports.com's Steve Melewski noted:

Add the six scoreless frames he authored in his previous start Aug. 23 against the Washington Nationals, and you've got the makings of a positive trend. At the very least, it's a glimmer of hope.

The Orioles can hit. They rank fourth in the American League in runs scored (615), second in OPS (.772) and lead the MLB in home runs (204).

That and a stout bullpen anchored by uber-closer Zach Britton have kept Baltimore in the postseason picture. If the season ended Sunday, the O's (71-59) would own the AL's second wild-card slot.

But there are multiple challengers nipping at their heels, including the Detroit Tigers (69-61), Houston Astros (68-62) and Seattle Mariners (68-62). The defending champion Kansas City Royals are lurking, as are the youthful, revitalized Yankees.

At the same time, the O's are locked in a tight AL East race with the first-place Toronto Blue Jays and potent Boston Red Sox.

Entering play Monday, Baltimore is three back of Toronto for the division lead. Closing that gap and avoiding the one-and-done Wild Card Game is possible.

To do it, though, the Orioles need their starting pitchers to give them something. Outside of Gausman, the picture isn't pretty.

Ostensible No. 1 Chris Tillman is on the shelf with a shoulder injury. He's expected back in September, but there's no way to know how reliable he'll be.

Rookie and 2011 first-round pick Dylan Bundy teased elite potential after moving over from the bullpen in mid-July, but he's coughed up 12 earned runs and 19 hits in his last 14.1 innings. 

Yovani Gallardo owns a 5.69 ERA, which looks borderline decent next to the 8.18 mark Wade Miley has put up since arriving in Maryland at the trade deadline.

That places the onus squarely on Gausman. 

"It's just being more consistent," he said after his Aug. 23 outing, per Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. "I think that's the biggest difference between being a two and a three and being an ace. An ace, every time those guys take the mound, you know you're going to get a quality start out of those guys."

Raw stuff isn't the issue. Gausman's fastball sits in the mid-90s and can touch triple digits. However, as Camden Chat's Nick Cicere noted in April, "One of the Gaus' bigger bugaboos throughout his time in the big leagues has been his lack of a go-to breaking ball..."

Opponents are hitting .275 against his fastball and just .212 against his splitter compared to a robust .339 against his slider this season. 

Big league hitters will punish the hard stuff, even the really hard stuff, if they can simply wait for it. 

We're in small-sample territory, but Gausman threw a handful of nice-looking sliders Sunday. The fastball was crackling. He benefited from some timely defense, but overall, he looked the part of an ace. 

The fourth overall pick in 2012, Gausman has been a mixed bag of potential and inconsistency since he broke into the big leagues in 2013.

Has he turned the corner? It's only two starts, but it did come against the NL East-leading Nats and the suddenly big-bashing Yanks. 

O's fans have a right to be skeptical. But if Gausman can build on those 13 scoreless innings and turn in another dominant outing or two, the question mark may turn into an exclamation point.

As in: Kevin Gausman to the rescue!

     

All statistics current as of Aug. 28 and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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