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Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy: Primed And Ready

February 15, 2017
Gausman & Bundy.

Bundy & Gausman. 

The names have been linked for years, and at this point, the order in which they're aligned really doesn't matter.

Drafted fourth overall in consecutive seasons by the Orioles, right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are poised for greatness. There may come a time when it's obvious who should be listed in front of the other -- think Maris & Mantle, Ruth & Gehrig, Spahn & Sain -- but for now, the best course of action is to simply sit back and see how these two exceptional right-handed power pitchers navigate through the pivotal phase of their respective careers.

If all goes as planned, Bundy and Gausman will be the cornerstones of the Baltimore rotation for years to come. And if their breakthrough performances in 2016 are any indication, they just might become the most feared 1-2 punch in baseball.

"I don't see two guys on any staff that compare to the potential of these two," said former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, now an analyst for MASN. "I've always loved Gausman and his 99 mph fastball. I've always loved Bundy's work ethic, which is about as perfect as I've seen from any recent-day player.

"The potential there is so great for these guys to be the two most dominant starters in baseball," said Dempsey, whose credibility comes from the fact that he's caught fastballs from pitching legends Jim Palmer, Orel Hershiser and Catfish Hunter.

Two Different Starts

Before delving into the possibilities the future might hold for the 26-year-old Gausman and 24-year-old Bundy, it's worthwhile to know a little bit about their past.

"Both of these players, they were born to be major league pitchers," said Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. "From the time they were this high," Duquette said, holding his hand at waist level, "they were being groomed to do this."

Well, he's half right.

Bundy grew up on a 13-acre patch of land in Sperry, Okla., where his father made sure his two sons would be able to hone their baseball skills at an early age.

"Dad used his tractor to build a backstop and a field out in the pasture. It was a small field, but it worked," Bundy said. "We had practices there up until I was about 12 years old, but even through high school I'd play catch out there with my brother, just seeing how far we could throw the ball.

"Dad built a mound for us when I was 9. He used the tractor to make a pile of dirt that was supposed to be a mound. It looked nothing like a mound, it was just a slope, I guess, but it worked. If we didn't catch each other, we'd aim at the pipe by the batting cage, just trying to keep the ball down."

That background helped Bundy develop into a star. After going 11-0 with a 0.20 ERA as a senior at Owasso High School and being named Gatorade National Player of the Year, he was drafted by the Orioles in 2011. He followed his older brother, Bobby, a pitcher who's still in the Orioles' minor league system after being selected in the eighth round by Baltimore in 2008.

"I owe my knowledge about pitching to my brother and my dad," Dylan Bundy said. "Dad never played above high school, but he always loved Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, all those old-timers who threw hard and were power pitchers. He read their books, looked at their videos and watched them in person. He used that to teach me."

Gausman, on the other hand, literally grew into his role as a ballplayer. As a youth in Aurora, Colo., he was the kid on his Little League squad least likely to succeed. 

"When I was 9 years old, we won the national championship for USSSA," Gausman said. "The crazy thing about it was that I was the worst player on our team. Probably the only reason I was on the team was because my dad was one of the coaches. I wanted to be real good, but I wasn't at that time. It pushed me to work to be better.

"Now I'm the only guy from the neighborhood who's in the majors. A lot of my buddies back home don't believe it. They say, ‘If you told me when we were 11 years old that you would be in the big leagues and we weren't, we'd have thought you were crazy.'

"... I think it clicked when I was a freshman in high school. I started lengthening out and my velocity started getting higher. That's when I noticed I had a good arm. I wanted to be an outfielder, but I couldn't hit. So I pitched. My freshman year I got bigger and started throwing harder and started getting offers from colleges."

Gausman excelled as a senior at Grandview High School in 2010 before being drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He opted to go to Louisiana State, honed his skills and was selected by the Orioles in 2012.

Finding Their Rhythm

Gausman and Bundy knew all about each other when their paths crossed for the first time at Double-A Bowie in 2012. Bundy was already there when Gausman arrived to make a brief appearance in a playoff game.

"We got to know each other, and I enjoyed it," Bundy said. "Then we were separated for two of the next three years because of injuries to me."

Ah, injuries. Although Bundy made his Orioles debut as a 19-year-old in 2012, allowing one hit during 1.2 innings in two games, he missed the entire 2013 season. The right-hander didn't pitch after spring training because of forearm discomfort, an injury that was ultimately diagnosed as a flexor mass strain. Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery in June, and in 2014, he pitched in only nine minor league games. An injury-riddled 2015 season followed.

"Hopefully, the injuries are out of the question now," Bundy said. "My arm feels great."

Gausman pitched his first game with Baltimore on May 23, 2013. But that year, as well as the two that followed, featured a back-and-forth shuffle between the big leagues and minors. In 2014, he saw action in the postseason out of the bullpen, experience he utilized the following season by ringing up 103 strikeouts in 25 appearances with the Orioles.

Finally, both pitchers showed their prowess at the big league level in 2016. Bundy pitched out of the bullpen until July 17, when he made his first major league start and yielded three home runs in 3.1 innings against Tampa Bay. He then beat Cleveland and lost to Colorado before blanking Texas through seven innings, the lone hit being a single with two outs in the sixth. Bundy faced the minimum 15 batters through five innings, erasing a fourth-inning walk with a double-play grounder.

"He's going into the sixth inning, and I was at first base thinking, ‘Man, he's throwing the ball really well,'" Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. "I turn around and look at the scoreboard and I'm like, ‘Holy crap, he's got a perfect game going!' I feel like that's how it was every time in the first few starts for him."

Though not quite perfect, Bundy was plenty good enough that night and for the many that followed. He closed the season 10-6 with a 4.02 ERA over 36 games, 14 of them starts.

"Last season was great. I got to learn the ups and downs, the hard times and the good times," Bundy said. "It was fun."

The good times included a seven-strikeout performance in just 2.1 innings of relief against the Dodgers. But Bundy showed his inexperience in other outings, including an 8-1 loss to Boston in which he needed 89 pitches to get through 4.1 innings.

"I know at 97, 98 mph, if he puts the ball where he wants, he can get it by anybody. That's very important," Dempsey said. "I've seen the good fastball, and he has an excellent curveball. He's very disciplined when he uses it. Now, the thing I want to see him do is learn who he has to throw it to and when he has to throw it."

For Gausman, 2016 was half satisfying. He began the season on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, the same injury that sidelined him for a spell in 2015. Gausman finally got started April 25, lost his first five decisions and had a 3-10 record Aug. 13. He then peeled off five straight wins and finished 9-12 with a 3.61 ERA, making 30 starts and striking out 174 in 179.2 innings.

"I learned to just pitch and kind of trust myself," Gausman said. "Last year, I started to become more of an overall pitcher. I threw breaking balls in situations I never would have. That's the only way you get confidence in those pitches."

In It Together

Gausman took great delight in seeing Bundy perform well, not just because they're friends but because they're in this thing together -- and intend to stay that way for years to come.

"It's just exciting to see him back and healthy. To see him pitch the way he did last year, it was a great sight," Gausman said. "He's a little behind me, service-time wise, but we play off each other well because we're both in the early stages of our careers. We talk about that a lot. We talk about pitching, and mostly we bug the crap out of the older guys, asking questions to [Orioles right-handers Chris] Tillman and Ubaldo [Jimenez]."

Though they're both still works in progress, Bundy and Gausman are doing it as a team.

"Kevin had a great year, especially in the second half. He really turned it up a notch, and I could tell he was getting smarter as a pitcher, not just throwing pitches over the plate," Bundy said. "He was studying hitters and learning as he went along. We would talk about what he was thinking in terms of sequences and certain pitches and how he would attack hitters and how I would attack hitters."

Although it took several years for Bundy and Gausman to become regulars in the starting rotation, it was certainly worth the wait for those around them.

"I thought they did a tremendous job," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "We believed Dylan would be the kind of pitcher he finished up as, and Gausman, we've been hoping and waiting for that for a while now. It's not for lack of trying. Sometimes, it takes these power pitchers some time. It really clicked for Gausman. They're two extremely exciting prospects, two extremely exciting starting pitchers."

The one striking similarity in the ascent of Bundy and Gausman is the Orioles were careful in charting their innings and monitoring their health. Both were rested when injured, both began their major league careers in the bullpen and worked with a restrictive pitch count when given the ball every fifth day.

"The Orioles have always been fantastic in the way they've handled young pitchers. They don't push these guys," Dempsey said. "Bundy had the operation, and Gausman had a little bit of a setback. My personal opinion was that Gausman was a little late coming to the dinner table, maybe because of injuries."

It's Their Time

When the Orioles open the 2017 season, the reins will be removed. Both pitchers are healthy, know what it takes to win and free to fire away every fifth day.

"It's huge," Davis said. "A lot of people have been saying the last few years that once they get that experience, know how to go about their work and understand what to expect from the standpoint of making 25 to 30 starts, these are the guys we've been waiting on."

The Orioles have made a practice of going outside the organization to add talent to the rotation, but signing free agents such as Jimenez and righty Yovani Gallardo is a risky and expensive proposition. With Bundy and Gasuman, Baltimore has two studs at a bargain price.

"It's going to be nice this year not to have those restrictions on them," manager Buck Showalter said. "We're still going to have some, like we would with any pitchers. They're precious commodities. Dylan and Kevin, let's be frank, they're good young pitchers with bright futures and they aren't putting our payroll in distress. But they will at some point."

And that's going to be OK, because the Orioles will know exactly what they're getting.

"Having to pay high salaries for starting pitchers has proven in our game to be a dead end," Showalter said. "By the time they get to the point where they warrant that kind of commitment, the wear and tear is [inescapable]. I'd be fine in committing to our young guys, where I know the wear and tear isn't there. That's what's so great about developing your own."

Now that Bundy and Gausman (or, if you prefer, Gausman and Bundy) are prepared to start a season together in the rotation for the first time, it seems as if everything is going exactly according to the Orioles' carefully drawn blueprint.

"So far, so good. To have them both pitching effectively against the [American League] East down the stretch last year was a real good reflection on the organization," Duquette said. "When we drafted them, they had shown elite skills as amateurs. And then for that to translate into success for the major league team in a pennant race, that's what the team had planned for. The idea would be for them to be in the rotation for a number of years to provide some stability to the club and solidify the team. If they can do that, it would say a lot about the organization. We would have done a good job on scouting but also in the development of these pitchers."  

Issue 230: February 2017