BALTIMORE — The offseason and spring had gone as well as you could reasonably hope for Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz in his quest to rebound from a historically-poor 2011 season.
After posting the highest earned run average (10.69) in major league history for a pitcher making at least 10 starts, Matusz revamped his training regimen and reported to Sarasota in better shape than he did a year ago. He led the Orioles staff in strikeouts (22) and posted an encouraging 3.65 ERA in 24 2/3 spring innings. His velocity was back to where it had been in his first two seasons in the big leagues, his fastball sitting consistently in the low 90s on the radar gun.
The spring performance was enough for Matusz to nail down the No. 4 spot in Baltimore’s revamped starting rotation, but Monday was a reminder that he was back in the “real world” of big league games that counted.
And the New York Yankees greeted him rudely.
Matusz allowed four earned runs and walked four in four innings as the Orioles were dealt their first defeat of the season. Displaying their all-too-familiar patient approach at the plate, the Yankees consistently forced Matusz into deep counts as he was up in the strike zone for much of the evening.
“Just trying to be a little bit too fine with a lot of their big hitters rather than trusting my stuff and attacking the zone,” Matusz said. “I felt strong throughout the whole game. The training’s really paying off. It’s just being able to settle in and getting ahead in the count.”
The velocity was not a concern as it was last season, but the 25-year-old threw first-pitch strikes to only 11 of the 21 hitters he faced. Matusz also went to three balls on nine different occasions, a major reason why he was lifted after 96 pitches at the conclusion of the fourth.
It was a stark contrast from the spring when Matusz walked only three batters in his six starts, supporting the notion of how little you can take away from spring training numbers. However, manager Buck Showalter viewed the control issues as a blip on the radar rather than a trend to create pregnant pause.
“His stuff was pretty good,” Showalter said. “It’s just that his command wasn’t what it’s going to be or has been up to this point.”
To his credit, Matusz didn’t allow the outing to spiral out of control completely as many of his appearances did last season, stranding four baserunners in his four innings of work. He has now allowed four or more earned runs in 11 straight starts and fell to 0-3 against the Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Looking for baby steps in the pitcher’s performance was the underwhelming return of the night rather than the giant strides that would have come with a more impressive showing against the previously winless Yankees.
“[Holding the Yankees to four runs] probably wouldn’t have happened last year, and I think that’s a tribute to his stuff,” Showalter said. “He kept battling. I feel a lot better about that outing than I would have last year. I think you’ll see better things from him.”
Regardless of the results, one start was neither going to exonerate Matusz from his problems of a year ago nor sentence him to another season-long nightmare.
The signs of improvement are there, even if they didn’t translate to the box score or the win column in the Orioles’ first meeting of the season against the Yankees. But until he strings together a number of quality starts, you have to wonder how Matusz’ confidence will endure outside the safety of the winter and spring training starts that often came against lesser competition than what he’ll see in the American League East.
His battery mate certainly believes in the work he’s put in since last September.
“His stuff is leaps and bounds better than last year,” said catcher Matt Wieters, who matched a career high with four hits in the loss. “That’s the first step. He’s just got to get back to pitching.”
It sounds so simple for the 2008 first-round pick, who spent less than a full season in the minors before making his major league debut late in 2009.
Matusz appeared on the fast track to becoming the Baltimore ace before crashing into a brick wall in his third year, where his struggles were so immense that you still wonder if he will ever fully recover to become the pitcher so many — inside and outside the organization — projected him to be.
“I’m not happy at all with today, but I’m on the right track to be where I need to be,” Matusz said.
For the Orioles’ sake, you can only hope he’s right. Monday’s start is exactly what it was — one start.
But everyone involved would have liked to have seen better results at the starting gun.
Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear more from Brian Matusz, Matt Wieters, and Buck Showalter following the Orioles’ 6-2 loss to the Yankees right HERE.