BALTIMORE — The Orioles keep knocking on the door, waiting for the old Brian Matusz to reappear, but continue to get no answer.
And it’s growing more concerning with every start.
On a night when the ball was flying out of Camden Yards with a combined nine home runs hit in the Reds’ 10-5 victory on Saturday night, Matusz looked more like the batting practice guy than the left-hander projected to be the No. 2 starter entering spring training.
In just 4 2/3 innings against the Reds, Matusz gave up a season-high six earned runs, three home runs (tying a career-high), and nine hits while striking out five and walking one. His fastball touched 91 miles per hour once in the first inning, but consistently sat between 86 and 88 miles per hour for most of the evening.
“The velocity obviously isn’t there,” said Matusz, who believes his changeup is getting better, but is still haunted by poor location. “Being in my fifth start, I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress, but I’ve just got to continue working and get a lot better.”
In a sad contrast, Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman was hitting 101 on the stadium gun as he struck out the side in the ninth inning.
How much are a few miles per hour on the fastball going for on eBay these days?
In his five starts since returning from the disabled list on June 1, Matusz has surrendered 31 hits, 17 earned runs, and seven home runs. His earned run average is a horrific 6.85 in 22 1/3 innings pitched.
Joey Votto, the 2010 National League Most Valuable Player, was especially tough on Matusz by hitting two home runs in his three at-bats against the southpaw. Falling behind 0-2 before working the count full, Votto blasted a hanging curveball to the right-center bleachers for a three-run bomb in the third inning. His second came in the fifth when he turned on a 2-1, 85 mph two-seamer for a two-run shot to right.
What do you do with the pitcher?
Send him down to Triple-A Norfolk?
Place Matusz on the disabled list if you’re convinced he’s not right physically despite his continued claims that he’s feeling fine and simply needs to build more arm strength?
Or keep running him out there every fifth day?
For now, manager Buck Showalter said the club will continue working with the young pitcher in hope that his velocity will return and the numbers will be more in line with the final two months of 2010, but the alarm is obviously sounding, whether anyone will admit it or not.
“This is a 24-year-old young man that has had some success in about everything he’s done pitching and finished up pretty good last year,” Showalter said. “He’s had a lot of challenges health-wise this year for the first time in his career, so I try to keep that in mind. Obviously, it affects you physically, but sometimes mentally. He’s strong enough. He’ll fight through and be better as a result of it.”
With diminished velocity, Matusz’s margin for error has shrunk exponentially, making success nearly impossible without pinpoint control. It’s a scary proposition when facing sluggers like Votto or the many dwelling in the American League East.
“Not being able to pitch with 93, 94 like I have in the past,” Matusz said, “you have to be able to have a better plan and execute pitches better, especially with their big hitters.”
None of it sounds very convincing. Something is clearly wrong with the young pitcher, even if no one knows the solution — or wants to admit it.
“We know he’s got good stuff,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it. It’s point-blank.”
It’s what everyone’s waiting for.
But there haven’t been any real signs that it’s coming.