Matusz Breezes Way To Double-A




BOWIE, Md.—The past 10 years have not been kind to the Orioles, but an infusion of talented young players could quickly reverse the trend of losing baseball in Charm City.

Baltimore has arguably the best young outfield in baseball, featuring from left to right, Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. With those three plus rookie catcher Matt Wieters, the Orioles' offense is beginning to take shape.

Now the last component is about to arrive: pitching.

Bowie already has sent righthander Jake Arrieta and lefthander Troy Patton to Triple-A Norfolk to join righty Chris Tillman, one of baseball's best pitching prospects. And the Baysox last season featured Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken and David Hernandez, a trio of righthanders that has flown north to Baltimore to make a combined 33 starts this season.

But the best of the bunch might be 22-year-old lefthander Brian Matusz, a San Diego product who went fourth overall in the 2008 draft.

"Brian is probably one of the best lefthanded pitchers who I've ever caught," said Bowie catcher Adam Donachie, a veteran of eight minor league seasons.

"Everything he throws he commands and he can put a low-90s fastball on either corner whenever he wants."

Polished Lefty

One of the best college pitchers in the nation in both 2007 and 2008, Matusz in his final year as a Torero struck out 141 batters in 105 innings, allowing only 20 earned runs in 14 starts.

He agreed to a $3.2 million bonus just before last year's Aug. 15 signing deadline. He missed out on the regular season, but Matusz debuted in last year's Arizona Fall League, tossing 262⁄3 innings for Surprise.

Opening this season with high Class A Frederick, Matusz went 4-2, 2.16, but really began to pick up steam in May when he struck out 43 in 39 innings against only 11 walks. He didn't allow a run in his final 23 innings.

"The last few starts in Frederick I was able to locate my fastball better and that was the whole key to my success there," Matusz said.

Matusz owns a diverse repertoire with both a four- and a two-seam fastball, a slider, a curveball and a changeup. His curve and change are widely considered to be his best offerings.

Matusz never has bought into that criticism that he relies too much on his breaking pitches at the expense of his fastball.

"I don't think my fastball has ever been bad, but I do have three other pitches that I throw for strikes," Matusz said. "The fastball is what sets them up, so it has to be working for them to be effective."

However, the Orioles did take steps to improve his fastball command and changeup in spring training.

"He wasn't allowed to throw his breaking pitches, only fastballs and changeups, which I think really tightened up his fastball command," Donachie said.

Location, Location, Location

In his first five starts for Bowie, Matusz had compiled a 2.01 ERA, with 35 strikeouts and six walks. Included on his résumé were scoreless outings of seven and eight innings, the first of which counted as a complete-game shutout.

To Matusz, it all begins with the ability to command the fastball and throw first-pitch strikes.

"It's gotten much better as the year has gone on in terms of location, which I think is where my success has come from," Matusz said. "Being able to locate down and away early in the count or down and in has just really helped me out."

His prowess was on display in a recent outing against Harrisburg. In eight innings, he allowed only a seeing-eye single, while striking out 11 and facing one batter over the minimum. Of the 98 pitches he threw, 73 were strikes and 18 of the 25 batters he faced saw first-pitch strikes.

"The key was being able to locate the fastball early in the game and get ahead, and then show guys some different stuff later in the game," Matusz said.

An increased workload, better competition and raised expectations haven't affected how well Matusz performs on the field in his first year as a pro.

"I don't look at outside challenges of what I need to do. I look within myself for what I need to do," he said.

"It's not really about working on any specific thing. The key is maintaining and consistency. The whole point to the first year is getting in that five-day rotation and going deep into the year with the same success rate as early on."

When you have had the success that Matusz has had, it's difficult to find flaws in his game, but Baysox pitching coach Larry McCall urges some restraint.

"He still needs some experience," he said, "mainly in locating his fastball a little bit better. But it's getting there with every outing. He just needs to keep pitching and getting better.

"But right now, he throws four pitches for strikes, and they are all quality pitches."

John Conniff is a freelance writer  based in Washington, D.C.