O's new lefty has right stuff

First-round draft pick Matusz has pitches, attitude for major success

June 22, 2008|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,Sun reporter

The first pitch thrown by left-hander Brian Matusz at the University of San Diego hit the backstop on the fly. It happened against the No. 1 team in the nation and in front of his father.

The only way it could have been worse would be if he had drilled the mascot.

"I was so pumped up," said Matusz, taken by the Orioles with the fourth overall pick June 5 in the amateur draft. "That ball wasn't anywhere near where I wanted to throw it."

Most college freshmen probably would have become unnerved at the sheer embarrassment of the moment. But Matusz, whose calm demeanor surfaced early in his childhood, struck out the batter and completed the last four innings in a 2006 upset victory over Texas, the defending national champion.

"We knew he was good, but you don't really know until he's put in that situation, that environment," San Diego pitching coach Eric Valenzuela said. "That's when we knew we had something special in that kid."

Matusz was making a rare relief appearance against Texas, but he also was making a statement. The pressures of competing at a Division I school weren't going to change him. And, according to those who know him best, neither will moving up to the professional ranks.

"I threw that first pitch and said to myself: `Well, I can't do any worse than that. Now settle down and get in a groove,' and that's what I did," said the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Matusz, who went 12-2 with a 1.71 ERA and led the nation with 141 strikeouts as a junior this year. "My adrenaline was flowing, but I was able to get through it."

He usually does.

The Orioles became enamored with Matusz's arm and his ability to throw strikes with four pitches, including a changeup and curveball. But they were just as impressed with his character. In sports parlance, it's known as having good makeup, "and he's off the charts," Valenzuela said.

"He's been through this stuff, getting all this attention, since his senior year in high school," Valenzuela said. "Nothing ever fazes him."

Matusz's father, Mike, can take you back a lot further than St. Mary's High in Arizona. He invites you into the family car for the ride to 10-year-old Brian's district championship game and lets you eavesdrop on a conversation that reveals a side of his son's personality that might explain the casual reaction to hitting the screen.

"Brian was going to pitch that day," Mike Matusz said. "I'm rushing to get there because I had to coach another game for my older boy [Chris]. I told him that I was sorry that we were running late, and he said, `Don't worry, they won't start the game without me.' He was so calm and collected at 10 years old."

Move ahead a year and it's virtually the same story within a different tale, this time when Brian pitched in another district championship game in the 11-12 age bracket.

"This is the clincher," Mike Matusz said. "In Phoenix, we got monsoon storms in July and August, very violent. I'm driving, and I could see to the east, about six miles away, a storm coming up. The sky was black, and you could see the lightning. I told Brian, `It doesn't look like they're going to get the game in,' and he said: `Don't worry, we're going to play. Today's my day.' Well, sure enough, it looks threatening, but he pitches and also goes 3-for-3 with a walk. All three hits were home runs. He called it. `Today is my day.' So matter-of-fact.

"That's always been his demeanor. He's never worried about things."

Maybe that explains how an 18-year-old kept walking away from $1 million as representatives from six major league teams sat at his family's kitchen table one at a time, trying to gauge whether he would sign if drafted out of high school. More interested in being part of the college experience, Matusz set his price at $1.475 million, knowing he wasn't likely to receive it.

"When you're 18 and that kind of money is flashed in front of your face, it's a really tough decision," Matusz said. "What it really came down to is what I wanted to do. And I knew in college I'd be able to develop myself, not just physically but mentally, and become an all-around better person. And I learned so much more going to San Diego, from my coaches and teammates, moving away from home and trying something new. It was a great decision for me."

The Angels took him in the fourth round in 2005, but contract talks never reached the serious stage. Mike Matusz recalls a team official saying his son wanted first-round money, "and he's not a first-round talent."

"I think Brian wanted to prove him wrong," Mike said. "The Angels thought they could talk Brian into it. In hindsight, and after his experience with San Diego, the number should have been $3 million."

The Pittsburgh Pirates gave last year's No. 4 pick, Clemson pitcher Daniel Moskos, a $2.474 million bonus. The Orioles expect to sign Matusz long before the Aug. 15 deadline for relinquishing his rights.

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