Gausman keeps evolving: 'He was just outstanding'

Though followed by usual lack of support, ace righty displays knack for making adjustments

June 28th, 2023

TORONTO -- The great artists tend to reinvent themselves.

You know  as the star of the splitter, a pitch so devastating that even those who look for it in the right places end up flailing at a ball that was never there. It’s the “something else” that makes Gausman great, though, because the moment a hitter thinks of anything other than his splitter, that pitch will turn him inside out.

Gausman’s fastball took a night in the spotlight Tuesday, responsible for nine of his 12 strikeouts as he buzzed through his old club, the Giants, for six innings of one-run ball. It was a Gausman classic in two ways: He dominated, and the Blue Jays’ bats left him out to dry. 

Gausman’s performance deserved better than the 3-0 loss at Rogers Centre, but nights like this showed an ability to evolve and adapt around game plans. That’s important in late June, but it’s the line between life and death come October, when every pitch is magnified. If you were required by law to nitpick at Gausman’s time with the Blue Jays, one of the only gripes you could scrape together is that, every few months, a lineup will surprise everyone by laying off his splitter and finding a way to hit Gausman. Tuesday, against a team that knows him as well as anyone, Gausman stayed one step ahead of that threat.

“I thought he was just outstanding,” said manager John Schneider. “He was understanding when they were laying off the splitter down, to throw the heater down. Then, when they were offering at the splitter, put the heater up. Just another really, really good outing for him.”

Cranking his fastball up as high as 97 mph, Gausman caught most of the Giants’ lineup swinging late at that pitch up in the zone. It’s the perfect complement to the splitter when Gausman is calling the shots, not reacting to an opposing lineup’s plan, and this fastball is doing some different things compared to a year ago.

So much of Gausman’s historically bad batted-ball luck in 2022 came against his fastball, which gave up a .333 batting average. Now, he’s getting more outs with that fastball and turning to it for third strikes with more confidence.

Even with this fastball as the perfect dance partner for Gausman’s splitter, though, this isn’t a complex attack. It’s A or B, one or the other, and he still beats you. The best insight into this might be how teams prepare in the days and hours before facing Gausman.

“I think his stuff is more going to tell the story today,” said Giants manager Gabe Kapler hours before the game. “If he’s on, he’s going to be a huge challenge for us. It’s very good quality pitches. Obviously with the fastball off the top, but he also carries it to the bottom of the zone. And the split is one of the best weapons in baseball, and he’s using the slider effectively. Right now, we can know all of that stuff. But I think the best way to approach Kevin Gausman is with a lot of respect and that gives us our best chance to be successful.”

The game of cat and mouse goes both ways, of course. 

“I felt like these guys knew me,” Gausman said. “And I felt like, looking at their maps, the fastball was there. They were taking some fastballs. I think they were obviously laying off the splitter early, so I just tried to get it in the zone.”

The Blue Jays’ offense keeps demanding perfection from Gausman, though. Even for him, that’s too high a bar. 

Entering play Tuesday, only three qualified MLB starters have received less run support from their offense than Gausman, and the shutout loss didn’t help. This Blue Jays season has been a lesson in waiting on things to normalize, but at the midway point of the schedule, that patience can wear thin. Gausman is the right man to wear this, though, and trudges forward knowing they’ll come … eventually.

“With this lineup, you always feel like at any given moment, they could turn it around and put up a five spot,” Gausman said. “I just heard in [the clubhouse] that this is only the second time we’ve been shut out all season.”

Adjustments at the top typically aren’t drastic. Gausman isn’t about to add a knuckleball or throw left-handed, but these small reinventions along the way make him even better suited for October. The Blue Jays just need to get him there … and score some runs when they do.