Pair Of Toreros Pull Off Unlikely Switch In Big Leagues

Follow me on Twitter

A.J. Griffin starting Game 162 with the American League West Division title on the line. Brian Matusz striking out Josh Hamilton on three fastballs in the AL Wild Card game.

Yup, it's exactly NOT how University of San Diego coach Rich Hill pictured it.

"It has absolutely flipped," Hill said during the Division Series round, watching from San Diego as Griffin prepared to start Game Four for the Athletics and Matusz evolved into the main setup reliever for the Orioles. "But it's amazing to see them on that stage.

"They're the poster boys for our program. We're building this new ballpark, and their pictures will be all over that building."

Brian Matusz and A.J. Griffin
Hill had Griffin on campus for four seasons, as a closer for the first two and then in the rotation for the last year and a half. Matusz, an unsigned fourth-round pick out of high school, was the most heralded recruit in USD history, and he carried the program to 87 victories in his last two seasons, the two winningest teams in school history.

In 2008, Matusz went 12-2, 1.71 and led the nation with 141 strikeouts in just 105 innings. The Orioles drafted him fourth overall, and he zoomed to Baltimore by 2009. In his first 40 big league starts, he went 15-14, 4.37 over 220 innings and appeared on his way to becoming the Orioles' ace.

Instead, he had statistically the worst season in major league history by a starting pitcher, a 1-9, 10.69 debacle in 2011. But Hill and Matusz's old college pitching coach, Eric Valenzuela, said the lefthander handled adversity the only way he knew how—by working harder to get better.

"The great thing about Brian is he's always been accountable for any failure he's had," Hill said. "He never made excuses. The ball just wasn't coming out of his hand the way he wanted, but he kept grinding and working. His perseverance jumps out when I see him now.

"(Orioles manager) Buck Showalter has been huge. When I talk to Brian, he emphasizes the communication—he talks to every player every day. The stuck with Brian through all of this, through the horrible year last year, and this year. 'Stay with it.' He just was always positive. It's a great example of leadership."

Valenzuela, now the pitching coach cross-town at San Diego State, said the first step for Matusz was mentally getting over the disappointment of last season. The second step was accepting and embracing a relief role, which he's done emphatically—opponents hit .305 off Matusz as a starter but just .114 when he relieved.

Both coaches said the key has been Matusz trusting his fastball more and attacking with the pitch out of the bullpen, and Hill credits improved core strength in Matusz's 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame with improving his fastball command. The next step in 2013 will be taking that mentality into a starting role.

"He's always been able to throw his three other pitches for strikes," Valenzuela said. "Moving to the bullpen has changed the fastball mentality for him. When he was in college, scouts always questioned my pitch-calling, because they wanted him to throw more fastballs. But we're here to win; he could throw a 2-0 changeup for a strike in his sleep. So we did use a lot of off-speed. Now he's commanding the fastball better than he did before."

Fastball command always has been the key for Griffin, who never had Matusz's stuff and never will. Valenzuela recalls seeing Griffin with an 82-84 mph fastball in high school, yet he got swings and misses with the pitch.

"He always missed bats and got weak contact, he always competed, he always won, but he had size and wasn't drafted. As a recruit, he was perfect," Valenzuela said. "He's still pitching in the upper 80s, flashes some low 90s but he hides it, it's downhill, and he always has had that plus change, and he still does.

"The curve is amazing that he's kept it that long. It was a get-me-over curve here at 69-70 (mph), and it's still kind of that same pitch. He's throwing the cutter and hitting his spots. Pitching is pitching, and his mentality is that he's not scared of anything."

Griffin had 25 saves in his first two seasons at USD, then won 16 games as a starter his last two seasons. The A's made him a starter in 2011 because of his fastball command and workhorse 6-foot-5, 200-pound frame, and he rewarded them by pitching 161 innings last season and finishing his first full pro season in Triple-A. His 2012 encore has included more than 180 innings combined between the minors and majors and won his first six big league decisions en route to a 7-1, 3.06 season.

"In some ways, he's the same guy," Hill said. "Two-seam, four-seam, cutter, change—four versions of the same pitch basically, and he commands them all. They come out of the same slot, and he's always had impeccable command. He's been so effective as a starter and I can see him eating up a lot of innings, but if you put him back in the bullpen, I am sure he'd be a great setup man because of his effectiveness against lefthanded hitters with that change and cutter."

Eventually, the former Toreros could wind up in the roles they inhabited when they were college teammates. Their college coaches saw them having success as big leaguers, just not the way it has come.

"I was out there closing for him for two years and he did an outstanding job going out there every time for us at USD, the Toreros, and we just had a good time winning ballgames there," Griffin told BA's Casey Tefertiller. "He's been doing a heck of a job lately. He's got that new role over there in Baltimore. And I think he's had some sort of a renaissance there with that. I'm just proud of him going out there and getting guys out.

"When we played Baltimore last time, we actually got together and talked like a half hour before one of the games and took some pictures and sent them to Rich Hill, our coach in San Diego. So those are probably going to be used online on the USD website."