It wasn't so long ago that 22-year-old Kevin Gausman was watching from the seats, desperate for someone to throw him a foul ball or sign his program. And the Orioles' No. 2 prospect still sounds a lot like the boy who dreamed of some day taking the field.
"I won't ever forget this," Gausman said Thursday after earning his first professional win. "There were a bunch of Little Leaguers who were out there and watched me warm up, and I could hear them saying, 'Oh wow!' It's kinda crazy, I used to be one of those kids. So that's kinda cool to look back and think, that was me 15 years ago."
All grown up, Gausman nevertheless soaked in every moment of his assignment as the starter for Double-A Bowie's home opener, a 5-1 win over Akron. These days, his mid-90s fastball and off-speed arsenal had him as one of the last cuts at the Orioles' Major League Spring Training camp last month.
He may be in Bowie and it may have only been his eighth career Minor League start, but for Gausman, Thursday couldn't have gotten much better.
"It's kind of cool, I tossed a warmup ball to a kid, just some fun things, and it brings you back to what this game is about," he said. "Having fun."
Few had much fun over in the Aeros dugout as Gausman struck out five and did not walk a batter in six innings, holding the Indians affiliate to a run on two hits over 90 pitches. Akron didn't manage a baserunner until the third inning.
"It feels great, it was our home opener so there was a lot of excitement, a lot of festivities before the game, a lot of Little Leaguers hanging out, so that was cool," the LSU product said. "I always collect baseballs, so I have my first college win and now my first professional win, first Double-A win -- it's pretty cool."
Gausman bounced back from a rough 2013 debut when he allowed six runs on eight hits over four innings in a loss to Harrisburg last week.
"In Harrisburg, I was kinda almost around the zone a little too much, I left some pitches up later in count and that was something this outing I tried to focus on," he said. "I was hitting my spots early in the at-bats and later extending the zone."
Gausman's only mistakes came in the fifth when Giovanny Urshela hit a leadoff double and then scored after a wild pitch and Baysox catcher Brian Ward's throwing error to third.
The righty throws what he calls a one-seam fastball, which is basically a fastball with heavy sink, similar to the more conventional two-seamer. An out pitch in some situations, he said one just dove a little too much and got away.
"It went right into the ground, my catcher did a good job blocking it, but it got away from him," he said. "If it was better thrown, we would have had him. But it's the kind of thing, it's like starting the inning over, and I had a 1-2-3 after that. That's all you try to do, try to eliminate the things you can't control."
Gausman did settle down, retiring the next five batters before beaning Chun-Hsiu Chen with two outs in the sixth. He got Jesus Aguilar to ground out to end the frame, finishing up his night as he reached his 90-pitch limit.
After spending as much time as anyone in big league camp, Gausman said he felt prepared to take on Double-A batters.
"That was what really prepared me," he said. "I could tell right away when I faced these guys, I was ready at this level. I felt like I didn't need anything more."
Kevin Gausman's first two starts
Orioles fans will keep a close eye on the team's 2012 first-round pick, who made just five regular season starts last year before appearing in one playoff game for Bowie. Baltimore hasn't shied away from calling upon its top talent from Bowie -- last year alone, the club promoted right-hander Dylan Bundy and third baseman Manny Machado straight from the Eastern League. A hot start for Gausman could mean a similar path to Camden Yards.
"I think Buck [Showalter] has shown he doesn't care how much time you've had, if you can contribute and help the team win, he'll make the move," Gausman said of the Orioles manager. "I want to get there as soon as I can, but that's unrealistic. I have to work on things I need to work on, but I had a great meeting with him at Major League camp. I'm really excited going forward, just trying to fine-tune everything."
Gausman figures to form arguably the best 1-2 combo in the Minors when Bundy is cleared to resume pitching following elbow stiffness this spring. Although he remains several weeks ago, the opportunity is one Gausman is eager to have.
"We haven't heard anything. He's down in Sarasota, they'll make sure he's 100 percent ready before they bring him up here," Gausman said of Bundy, the Orioles' No. 1 prospect who reached the Majors in September.
"We trust them, and it's going to be fun. I'm getting to know him better, I got to know him a little at Spring Training. He's a funny guy, he's a good teammate, so it's going to be fun. It's good when you have a healthy competition between starting pitchers and they're trying to one-up each other."
As for Thursday's win, the game-ball memento will live in Gausman's trophy case for years to come, as probably will the ball he tossed to the youngster in the seats.