JUPITER, Fla. — The education of top Orioles pitching prospect Brian Matusz must be going pretty well when even his bad outings turn out to be pretty good. Matusz struggled through his first difficult extended performance, but he lasted six innings, threw 83 pitches and came away with what will go down as a quality start in the Orioles' 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday at Roger Dean Stadium.
He clearly wasn't at his best and gave up nine hits against a tough Cardinals lineup that included Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick at the heart of the order, but he kept his composure and minimized the damage in a couple of potentially bigger innings.
"He wasn't as crisp ... he wasn't as sharp," manager Dave Trembley said, "but he knows how to pitch. He knows how to pitch without his best stuff. That was obvious today, and he was good."
In fact, you could make the case that it was better for Matusz to face some adversity at this point in spring training so he could get some work in with runners on base. He had been dominating in his two previous starts, pitching 10 1/3 innings and giving up just a run on three hits, so it probably didn't hurt him to battle a little harder, especially against such a quality opponent.
"No question at all," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. We're crazy if we think he's going to go out there and pitch like he did the last two times out every day. It's a process. In order to be a winning pitcher in this game and this league, you have to be able to pitch and keep your team in the game when you don't have your best stuff and you don't feel as good as you normally do.
"Great learning experience for him, both when he doesn't have his good stuff and also a reminder to him that he can't just leave the base runners alone and let them run."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about what happened Wednesday afternoon is that Matusz recognized all that himself. He is a special prospect. Everybody knows that and, presumably, he does, too, but he also knows that there is still a lot he doesn't know.
"Today was one of those days where I never really got in a good groove, and you're going to have those days," he said. "There are games where you're going to pitch great and games where you don't have your best stuff and you've got to grind and battle through it.
"I was having a tough time getting on top of my pitches today. I feel like I didn't have a very good downward plane on my fastball, which ... all the other pitches work off the fastball, so, because I wasn't able to establish that pitch, I was a little bit inconsistent with my other pitches."
There's a lot of inside baseball in that explanation, but what's impressive is how objectively Matusz is able to analyze himself. He has a total of eight regular-season starts in the major leagues, and if it weren't for his youthful appearance, you'd think he was a 15-year veteran. Trembley pointed that out even before Wednesday's game.
"He pitches with a plan, and he has confidence," Trembley said. "It's remarkable. He's really had so little time here, and he acts like he's been here forever."
Want more proof of what kind of pitcher he is at just 23 years of age? He held Pujols and Holliday to a combined 0-for-6 with a walk, and he spent his post-game interview talking about what a great experience it was to work on his slide-step with runners all over the bases.
"It was a good day in terms of learning a lot ... things I need to work on and things I need to get better at," he said. "But at the same time, I was able to work out of some jams. Honestly, I feel like it could have been a lot worse today, but I was able to just battle and work through it.
"It's nice to have one of those starts today -- in spring training -- so I know what I need to work on. I'm going to take a lot from today and look forward to my next start."