Will Mercurial Matusz Ever Get It Right?
By Matt Palmer
Following the Orioles' 14-3 loss to the Texas Rangers May 7, pitcher Brian Matusz looked dejected, frustrated and annoyed. A crowd of reporters encircled his locker inside the clubhouse.
His answers were short, and he wasn't in the mood to entertain questions.
He had just delivered yet another subpar outing, this time giving up seven runs on 10 hits. His ERA swelled to 5.91. Matusz, 25, spent the night unable to locate the strike zone and fell behind hitters, his problem for much of the early 2012 season.
"I'm flying open on pitches and leaving some breaking balls out over the plate," Matusz said. "Any rough outing is disappointing, especially with the momentum we had as a team."
The Orioles entered the contest with a five-game winning streak and had just come off an emotional 17-inning victory at Fenway Park in Boston. Back in the friendly confines of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Matusz had been handed an opportunity to continue his team's good fortunes. It wasn't an unfamiliar place for the club, which had the best record in the major leagues after the May 6 win against the Red Sox.
It seemed as if each time the club had a chance to establish itself as one of the surprise teams of the early season, Matusz was on the mound, presented with the opportunity to take the Orioles to the next level.
But, just like his career development, the streak was stalled.
When the Orioles began the season 3-0, Matusz pitched the team's fourth game, against the Yankees, and surrendered four runs on six hits in just four innings. Five games later, the Birds were riding a two-game winning streak when he gave up five runs on seven hits in 5.2 innings during a 9-2 loss to Toronto. The Orioles had won three of four April 20, when he allowed six runs -- four earned -- on nine hits during five innings during a 6-3 loss to the Angels.
Matusz also had two strong starts, including a May 1 win in New York. That victory snapped his 12-game losing streak, which dated back to June of last year. He allowed just six hits and one run during the victory against the Yankees.
"I am so proud of him," manager Buck Showalter said after that game.
Just when he thought he took a major step forward, Matusz took a step back against the Rangers and showed that he was miles away from being a reliable starter.
"I'm frustrated for him," Showalter said. "He wasn't the guy we had seen the last three or four starts."
Through all of Matusz's inconsistencies, the Orioles appear reluctant to part with him or demote him to Triple-A Norfolk for long.
The 2011 season was a lost one for Matusz, as he started the season on the DL with an oblique strain. When he returned, he was poorly conditioned and opposing hitters feasted on his offerings, particularly his fastball, which lacked velocity. His 10.69 ERA broke Roy Halladay's record as the worst in the majors for pitchers with more than 10 starts.
Matusz had various stints with the Norfolk Tides, but the lack of starting pitchers in Baltimore made his demotions temporary.
He returned in 2012 in better shape and with more velocity.
"His stuff is leaps and bounds better than last year," catcher Matt Wieters said.
The confidence the Orioles have in Matusz has been years in the making. The front office, headed then by Andy MacPhail, took Matusz with the fourth overall pick in 2008.
Thanks to Matusz's dominating college career at the University of San Diego, most scouts and experts thought he was a next-level prospect ready to play immediately. Indeed, he blew through the Orioles' farm system during a year's time.
Scouting director Joe Jordan said at the time of the draft that Matusz's character and talent set him apart.
"This guy really knows what he's doing," Jordan said. "There's going to be a lot of days, as with every pitcher, where you go to the mound and you don't have your best stuff. You have to figure out a way to win. This is a guy that I think has that intangible."
Ironically, those traits are probably what Matusz has needed most during the last two seasons and exactly what he has been missing most. His physical talents have been tested, and his lack of success has been devastating for the Orioles.
Showalter said the slate was wiped clean in 2012.
"I think there was a little anxiety going into the season and that has seemed to calm down," Showalter said. "He's got a good frame of mind."
Matusz rarely seems to be in sync with his team's performances. When the Orioles seem ready to take off, Matusz can stop a streak cold with a performance. Oddly, when the team could spiral out of control, he gives an unpredictably inspired effort, which reminds of the talent lurking underneath the troubles.
"I'm a completely different guy than last year," Matusz said.
The unfortunate part for the Orioles and Matusz is that the team appears to have found three solid starters in Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, but has not been able to round out the rotation. Matusz isn't alone in his struggles, as Tommy Hunter has been prone to giving up home runs.
Given the rotation's success, Matusz has to keep up, fulfill his promise or be left behind.
"Everyone in this rotation has been doing well," Matusz said, "going deep in games and keeping our team in the games all the way through."
Matusz almost seems like a confidence project for Showalter. If he can rebuild the former first-round pick, then the Orioles can continue to go forward in the American League East standings.
"Each outing, he's gotten a little bit better," Showalter said. "I know statistically it's been a tough start, but compared to last year in his last few outings, it's nothing close to that. I think good things are ahead for him, hopefully."
Issue 173: May 2012