SAN DIEGO–Brian Matusz captured my sentiments perfectly.
"It’s fun. When there’s a low-scoring game like that, it’s real college baseball, and that’s what fans like to come out and watch," San Diego’s All-America lefthander said after the Toreros beat Tanner Scheppers and Fresno State 5-2 this afternoon.
The battle between Matusz and Scheppers (pictured at right) was to be the marquee event of an outstanding weekend of baseball here in San Diego this weekend, and it more than lived up to its billing. Despite taking the loss today, Scheppers might have been the most impressive pitcher of the weekend. For six brilliant innings, he sat in the 93-95 mph range with a very lively fastball that he located to all quadrants of the zone. He elicited a number of impressed grunts from scouting directors with a vicious low-80s slider that he could throw for strikes or bury, and he mixed in a high-70s curveball that was outstanding at times, though not as consistent as the slider. He carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning and allowed just four hits in six innings while striking out nine. He got strikeouts in a variety of ways, getting Logan Gelbrich swinging on a tailing 95 mph fastball in the first; catching Nick McCoy and Sean Nicol looking at sliders in the third; striking out the side in the fourth, getting Josh Romanksi and Gelbrich on sliders and Victor Sanchez on a 95 mph fastball, all swinging; blowing away Zach Walters on a high heater and Kevin Muno on a low curveball in the fifth; and getting Nicol lunging for a slider off the plate in the sixth.
"He had good stuff today, good command," Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said. "We made some mistakes on defense, with a botched pickoff play and a couple of errors at shortstop that got his pitch count up. He’s about two weeks behind the rest of our staff (because of an abdominal strain). If we can be a little cleaner, we can get another inning or two out of him, and it’s a whole different game. So we’ve got some defense to clean up."
Leading 2-0 in the fifth, Scheppers allowed a run on two singles, and Romanski started things in the sixth with a one-out single through the right side of the infield. That set the stage for Sanchez, a heralded freshman who launched two mammoth home runs earlier this week in USD’s win against Long Beach State at Blair Field. Sanchez worked the count full, and Scheppers tried to sneak a 93 mph fastball by him, but Sanchez jumped on it and crushed it to left for a two-run homer, giving San Diego a lead it would not relinquish.
"I’m not trying to get out there and hit home runs, I’m just trying to move guys over," Sanchez said. "Romo was on second base during my at-bat, so with a full count I was just trying to stay inside the ball. I guess I was a little early on it and put the barrel on the ball. Especially with a full count, I was just trying to shorten up and put the ball in play, move him over to third so the next guy could get the job done. I was kind of expecting fastball–he was throwing a lot of sliders and he wasn’t hitting his spots very well."
For good measure, Sanchez crushed a double high off the center field hitter’s eye on another full count in the ninth, this time against reliever Jason Breckley. That keyed a two-run rally that gave USD some crucial insurance.
As it turned out, that insurance wasn’t necessary, because Fresno State’s bats were cold from the second inning on. The Bulldogs got to Matusz for a pair of runs in the first inning on Steve Susdorf’s two-run double to right field, but Matusz ended the threat with a pair of strikeouts using his slider and curveball. His fastball, which normally sits in the low 90s and touches 95, topped out at 92 today, and he did not command it well, so he adjusted by pitching backwards and relying heavily upon his three outstanding secondary pitches: a a 76-79 mph curveball with good depth, an 80-83 slider and a 79-81 mph changeup. All of Matusz’ 11 strikeouts save his last one came on his secondary stuff, and the Bulldogs couldn’t touch him after the first inning. He allowed just two runs on six hits and three walks over seven strong innings.
"Today I had a hard time locating my fastball, and that was a problem for me," Matusz said. "That’s going to happen, you’re not always going to have all your pitches going, and today I wasn’t hitting the spots I was hoping to be hitting with the fastball, so I had to go to my changeup, and it was there. When I was working at the knees, it was going great, but occasionally I would leave the changeup up. Since I’ve been here at USD, I’ve always had four pitches, and whichever one’s working that day, that’s the one we use as a strikeout pitch."
One thing that has struck me about the Toreros over the last two years is how personable their players are. Matusz and Romanski are two of the most likable star players I’ve come across, and both carry themselves with confidence but not arrogance. Matusz looks you in the eye when he speaks to you and offers thoughtful, analytical answers. I enjoyed talking pitching with him today, so I figured I’d relay some of his interesting answers.
Matusz said there were some mechanical things he needs to work on with the fastball.
"I’m leaving it up a little bit, I’m not coming through over my front leg, and I’m not following through," he said. "Also my grip’s off a little bit, to cause my two-seam fastball to go away from righties, I’m not able to get that corner, I’m leaving it away. My four-seam is a lot straighter than my two-seam. My two-seam, if I don’t grip it properly it just gets out of control, and I can’t locate it. But luckily my secondary stuff was there, and it bailed me out."
He said he was mixing both of his breaking balls today, but he uses them for different purposes.
"My slider, I try to bury that in the dirt, because if I leave it up, it gets hit," Matusz said. "Today, it worked out well. When I did bury it in the dirt, guys were swinging at it and it was very effective. My curveball is a pitch I can drop in for strikes more often, and guys will tend to take that a bit more. So both pitches were working well."
After struggling in the first inning, Matusz bounced back very strong. His mental approach clearly sets him apart.
"It was frustrating the first inning, going out there," he said. "I made a few bad pitches, and guys took advantage of it. I was walking guys, I just wasn’t consistently around the zone, I wasn’t using my pitches like I was later on. We always talk about, as a pitching staff, what makes a great pitcher is a guy that’s able, if you give up a few runs in the first to just push that aside and not think about, ‘Oh, the no-hitter’s gone and the perfect ERA’s gone for the day.’ Just push that aside and get better as the game goes. Coach always talks to me about, just get better each and every inning. That was my focus today and it worked out for me."
A lot of pitchers say they just ignore the opposing pitcher and focus on getting outs, but Matusz admitted he was enjoying the duel with Scheppers.
"It’s fun. When you have a matchup like that, it’s always exciting," he said. "Last weekend it was (San Diego State’s Steven) Strasburg, a great matchup, who was very sharp last weekend. Scheppers is obviously a mid-90s pitcher. He’s a great pitcher. It’s fun going back and forth, he’ll have two strikeouts, and I was shutting the offense down, and it’s a lot of fun."
Matusz also expressed appreciation for the efforts of remarkably resilient San Diego closer A.J. Griffin, who threw a scoreless ninth in USD’s first game today and came back to pick up a two-inning save in the second game. Griffin threw three pitches for strikes–an 86-88 mph fastball, a 79-80 changeup and a 74-76 curveball–and racked up five strikeouts in two innings against Fresno State.
"It’s awesome having A.J. on the team. He’s the best closer in the country–he’s just a bulldog," Matusz said. "Sometimes we talk about, we don’t know how he gets it done, but he’ll flip that curveball in and throw that fastball by every guy. I tell A.J. all the time, I love handing the ball over to him, because I feel comfortable. I’ve never seen him blow a game, it seems like. He’s very sharp and always ahead of his game. I think he’s got a very good future ahead of him."
So does Matusz, and for that matter, so does Scheppers.
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