In miserable day for Orioles, concerns over Matusz growing

June 12, 2011 | Luke Jones

There’s little point in belaboring an awful day of baseball for the Orioles in a 9-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday to conclude a 5-4 homestand.

Fielding miscues, baserunning mistakes, and missed opportunities at the plate were disheartening enough but pale in comparison to the growing concern over starting pitcher Brian Matusz.

The hideous final line included 1 1/3 innings pitched, four earned runs, five hits, four walks, no strikeouts, and a home run allowed in the shortest outing of his career not including a one-inning stint cut short after being hit by a line drive against Toronto last Sept. 13.

However, the numbers only begin to explain why manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles are concerned with Matusz, who was making his third start of the season after missing the first two months of the season with an intercostal strain. As was the case in his first two starts, Matusz only threw his fastball in the 86-88 miles per hour range. Unlike the first two starts, however, the lefty was all over the place with his command, looking uncomfortable from the start.

“From the get-go, I didn’t get a good feel warming up in the bullpen,” Matusz said. “It’s just one of those days where you’ve got to be able to battle without your good stuff. They were able to find some holes and get some things going early, and I was just unable to get on track today.”

Statistically speaking, Matusz was effective enough in his first two starts since being activated from the disabled list on June 1. He entered Sunday’s game with a career-high seven-game winning streak dating back to last August after picking up his first victory of the season against Oakland on Monday.

The story was much different against the Rays as Matusz was visibly frustrated throughout his brief outing in which he left the game trailing 3-0 with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning. His body language suggested a pitcher searching for answers and feeling uncomfortable on the mound.

In fairness, Matusz’ start to the 2011 season has been anything but smooth. A wart on his finger and a line drive to the forearm interrupted his spring training routine before he was ultimately placed on the disabled list on Opening Night. However, with a few extended spring training outings, three minor league rehab starts, and three starts with the Orioles, it’s reasonable to think there should be improvement with his stuff by now, right?

“There should.” Showalter said. “Yeah. He’s telling us he feels fine. Just not a whole lot coming out right now.”

Matusz claimed he was “100 percent healthy” when asked after the game, but only the 24-year-old really knows the truth at this point. Whatever the case, it’s clear the Orioles manager was unhappy with the pitcher’s performance on the mound, including his inability to hold runners.

The Rays stole four bases in the first inning alone with Matusz’s slow delivery to the plate barely giving backup catcher Craig Tatum a chance to throw out runners. Improving his ability to hold runners is a topic the club has discussed with Matusz, but Showalter questioned whether the message is getting through.

“He keeps telling us he can read them,” Showalter said. “It’s been a challenge for him. Maybe we’ll be able to get his attention a little bit more.”

Matusz’s struggles Sunday are certain to grab everyone’s attention, especially with the news that Zach Britton’s next start will be pushed back to Friday in an effort to limit his innings, so he’s available to pitch in September.

The Orioles need Matusz to be healthy and effective if they want to continue to hover around the .500 mark as the summer advances. As terrific as Britton has been, he’s likely to experience growing pains as teams see him more than once, and he’ll likely be shut down at the 175- to 180-inning mark after pitching 153 1/3 innings in the minor leagues last season.

Jake Arrieta leads the club with eight wins, but his command issues makes him an uncertainty to pitch deep into games with any consistency.

And Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen continue to work through their respective issues at Triple-A Norfolk.

Entering the season, Matusz and Jeremy Guthrie were assumed to be the two “sure things” in the Baltimore starting rotation.

Showalter wouldn’t commit to saying with certainty that Matusz would make his next scheduled start. He had yet to talk with the young pitcher when the manager spoke to the media following the game.

Judging from his comments, you can bet Showalter will be asking — with conviction — whether Matusz is truly alright.

“I’m fine confidence-wise,” Matusz said. “I know I have the stuff and what it takes to get outs and be successful. It’s just a matter of getting locked in and getting on a roll.”

For now, the Orioles can only take the pitcher at his word, but the eyeball test was troubling in a frustrating day in all regards at Camden Yards.

It’s a testament to Matusz that a small sample size of diminished velocity and one horrid start raises such concern, but it also speaks to just how important the left-hander is to the present — and future — state of the Orioles. He needs to get himself on track as quickly as possible for the club to have its best chance to remain competitive over the season’s final 100 games.

“He didn’t have his stuff working for him,” Luke Scott said. “He had an off-day. Usually Brian is crisp with his pitches and his location. He just didn’t have a good feel. That happens, that happens in this game.”

Not a good feel at all.

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