On The Map

Romanski, Matusz turn San Diego into a power




SAN DIEGO—Before each game for the past two years, San Diego coach Rich Hill has led the Toreros in a meditative exercise designed to clear their heads, calm their nerves and prepare them for the task at hand.

"Start by getting real comfortable," says Hill, who gathers his players together in a room, draws the blinds, dims the lights and then has everyone lay on their backs and close their eyes. "Take any problems or stress and see that on a piece of paper. Now let's crumple that thing up and throw it into a bonfire. Now your day's ready to start. Clear, fresh . . .

"Then we breathe. Big in, big out, for about 12 minutes . . . Nothing else going on. Just that breath."

If only Hill followed this relaxation technique three years ago. He could have removed all the anxiety he experienced waiting for lefthanders Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski to step foot on the USD campus. Hill was all but hyperventilating, so anxious was he to land the top two recruits in the history of the program.

In Matusz and Romanski, the Toreros were getting two national-caliber players. They were the kind of recruits who might put off pro ball to attend a big-name college like Texas or Stanford or Rice but typically made commitments to schools like USD only as bargaining chips in contract negotiations.

Matusz, from Cave Creek, Ariz., was a fourth-round pick by the Angels in the 2005 draft. Romanski, from Corona, Calif., was selected by the Padres in the 15th round.

Both likely would have been chosen earlier had their bonus demands been less. That, and a real desire for the college experience, brought them to USD.

It's been quite an experience for the pair, who have played themselves into prominence. Matusz is one of the top candidates for the national Player of the Year award and No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Romanski is arguably the top two-way player in the country.

They arrived together. They shared All-America honors. They were Team USA teammates. They will leave together. Matusz and Romanski are and always will be linked, especially in the minds of those who kept a close eye on the Toreros the past three years. But they are very much a study in contrasts, as players and people.

"They're two totally different guys," said USD catcher Logan Gelbrich. "The only thing that's similar is you know you're going to get an unbelievable quality outing from both of them."

Setting The Bar High

The Angels have never been reluctant to use high draft picks on high school talent. What they didn't grasp when they chose Matusz three years ago was that his price left no room for negotiation.

Matusz said he told each major league team before the draft that he would sign for $1.475 million. Not a penny less. Contract talks broke down before they really began.

"He wanted first-round money," Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said at the time. "He's not that kind of talent. At least not now."

But Matusz's goal wasn't just to become a first-round talent but the first overall pick. Rated among the top five prospects in this year's draft, Matusz may just pull it off.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with setting the bar high for yourself," he said. "I told myself that I was going to work hard every year, so that by my junior year I could put myself in position to be the No. 1 pick in the draft."

Said Hill: "If I was picking, he would be.

"He's got that prototypical big league body. He's got velocity. He's got secondary pitches. He could get major league hitters out right now. He could be a starter in the major leagues today."

The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Matusz has four quality pitches—fastball, curveball, slider, changeup—but two in particular get the most attention. Matusz's fastball has touched 96 mph and sits at 91-93 when he's at his best, though at times this year it has sat in the 88-91 range. He locates it so well that many hitters are frozen at the plate. He thaws them out with a changeup that makes hitters look so silly it seems they've swung before the ball's left his hand.

"But you can't really call him a power pitcher," said Gelbrich, "because you can't get in the box and know you're getting a fastball. He can beat you with every pitch."

Matusz's maturation has been a three-year process that began with his first collegiate pitch. Make that the second pitch. His first pitch hit the backstop.

"You can't do any worse than that, so after that I relaxed and settled down," Matusz said.

An overflow crowd at USD watched the Toreros open the 2006 season against Texas. Matusz made his debut by pitching the game's last four innings—retiring eight of the first nine hitters he faced—in USD's victory over the Longhorns. It began a three-game sweep over the defending national champions that captured the attention of the college baseball world.

Matusz was inserted into the Toreros' weekend rotation soon thereafter and was the Friday starter by midseason. He went 4-3, 4.25 as a freshman with 93 strikeouts and 39 walks in 89 innings. The most important thing Matusz learned is you don't always have to throw the ball by the hitter.

"I was trying to overpower guys," Matusz said. "That's when I learned you have to relax, try to hit spots, work down in the zone and you'll be successful."

He does it all now with an almost clinical efficiency.

"I try not to show my emotions on the mound," he said. "If you're watching in the stands, you can't tell if I'm dealing that game or getting shelled."

Getting shelled? Matusz's sophomore and junior seasons included long stretches where he was nearly unhittable and unbeatable. The seasons closely mirror each other statistically.

Last year, he went 10-3, 2.85 with 163 strikeouts (a school record) and 37 walks in 123 innings. He's 10-2, 2.05 this spring with 122 strikeouts and 20 walks in 88 innings.

The difference between 2007 and 2008?

"There's no difference," Matusz said. "I still take the same approach: go out there with the mentality that no one can beat me today."

Journey Of Self-Discovery

While Matusz has spent the past three years realizing his potential, Romanski has used it as an opportunity to learn who he is and who he wants to be—on and off the field.

One reason Romanski chose to come to college was because the Padres wanted to sign him as a pitcher, but he wasn't ready to put away the bat. Hill promised he could do both at USD.

Romanski's hitting quickly earned him a spot in the Toreros' lineup. The way he carried himself as a freshman didn't sit well with some of his teammates, however.

"All personalities are different," Gelbrich said. "Some people have a different view of his intensity and competitiveness on the field. He didn't play timid or view himself as a freshman. I think that might have caught some people off guard.

"It wasn't anything inappropriate or out of line. I saw that as a good quality in him, and he's really matured into it."

Romanski also had to learn that there's a time and a place for everything. His combative nature serves him well on the field, but doesn't go over so well with, for instance, a campus parking enforcement officer.

Romanski had a disagreement with one such officer during his sophomore year. It escalated to the point that heated words were exchanged and led to him being suspended for the first game of the 2007 season.

"I kind of felt like the parking guy had it in for me," said Romanski, who let the officer know just that in no uncertain terms. "That was obviously a stupid move on my part, but you learn from your mistakes and move on."

Romanski also had to learn who he was on the mound. Following in Matusz's footsteps didn't make it any easier.

"You always want to be the best on the field," Romanski said. "It's that way for any competitor."

The 6-foot, 185-pound Romanski doesn't have the same stuff as Matusz, however. He has a good changeup and curve, but his fastball tops out at 90 mph. He has to pitch to contact, mix his pitches well and hit his spots to be successful.

But try going out and doing that on Saturday after watching someone strike out 13 batters—which Matusz did on three occasions last season—the day before.

"When he goes out and strikes out 13 guys and gives up one or two hits, it is tough to follow," said Romanski, who struggled so much early last season that he was moved out of the weekend rotation.

In his first six starts last year, Romanski was 1-1, 5.92. He went 5-0, 0.94 in his next six starts after finding himself with Tuesday victories at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

What did he learn?

"Be me and don't try to top that," Romanski said. "I had to know that I'm not a big strikeout pitcher.

"When I go out on the mound I have to know I can hold a team to two hits. I just figured out that's the pitcher I am."

Romanski did better than that on March 24 against Harvard, throwing his first career no-hitter. Through 86 innings in 2008, Romanski was 9-0, 3.47 with 69 strikeouts and 15 walks. He also is among USD's most productive hitters, batting .317/.405/.485 with six homers and 45 RBIs through 202 at-bats.

But his days as a two-way player are drawing to a close. It's time to choose one or the other.

"I don't think I'm going to get to pick," said Romanski, who is expected to be selected within the draft's first five rounds. "I think a team's just going to pick it for me and I'm just going to go with it.

"As much as I love playing both ways, I think I'm ready to master one instead of trying to do both."

Hill believes Romanski's future is on the mound.

"I don't want to put any limitations on him, but he has a real chance to blossom as a pitcher," Hill said. "There aren't too many lefthanded guys out there who can do what he can do."

Laying The Groundwork

It's suggested to Hill that Matusz and Romanski put USD on the map.

"The national map?" said Hill. "That's a bold statement."

But he wouldn't argue with it.

"The program really turned to a national level when those guys arrived on campus.

"They've been great. Phenomenal. They've really produced. Sometimes that's tough to do when you come in with as much hype as they have. To go out and go do it and actually exceed expectations. It totally laid the groundwork."

USD's 2006 recruiting class checked in at No. 12 in Baseball America's Dandy Dozen. This year's class was ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Toreros reached the NCAA tournament just twice in school history before Matusz and Romanski arrived. This will be the school's third straight trip to the tournament.

And to think that Hill was worried about them making it to campus.

He wasn't alone.

USD pitching coach/recruiting coordinator Eric Valenzuela was concerned when Matusz drove up in his truck and didn't have many personal belongings. As if Matusz was just going through the motions before the Angels made an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I pack light," Matusz said. "I think he was nervous that I was just here a couple of days and then I was going to sign."

In the back of Hill's mind were stories of players who arrive on campus and check into their dorm rooms but never make it to their first class, signing at the proverbial 11th hour. He wasn't going to let that happen with Matusz and Romanski.

On the first day of school, Hill and his coaches took the pair to breakfast and then walked them to class, the first time in his 20-year career that Hill had so escorted a player.

"I don't care if you're going to kindergarten or college, there's a level of anxiety there," Hill joked at the time. "What if they get lost? Or something happened on the way? Or class was canceled? I'm going to be surprised the good way, not the bad way."

Matusz made it to World History. Romanski sat in for Introduction to Sociology.

That made it official. They were Toreros for three years. All that worrying for nothing.

Included in the meditative exercise Hill does with the team before each game is the instruction for everyone to concentrate on something for which they're thankful.

"There's real power in gratitude and feeling it in your gut," Hill said. "It's up to them. It can be thank you for the opportunity or for a person, like a parent or a girlfriend."

Or a pair of lefthanders.

Kirk Kenney writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune