Suited for success

Impressive in dress rehearsal, Brian Matusz could fit bill as Rookie of the Year

April 04, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec | jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

SARASOTA, Fla. — — It was about four hours before game time late last season, and Dave Trembley and Rick Kranitz were looking everywhere for their prized young pitcher. They searched the clubhouse, the training room, the dugout and even the seats at Camden Yards. When all those pursuits failed, Trembley called Brian Matusz's cell phone and got no answer.

The Orioles' manager and pitching coach, as well as president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, wanted to meet with Matusz to tell him that his whirlwind season was officially over. They never considered looking in the Orioles' team store in the B&O warehouse, where Matusz and teammate Chris Tillman had ventured in full uniform.

"We were looking and there's [ Nick] Markakis, Roberts and Jones jerseys. I was thinking, 'There are no pitchers' jerseys in here,' " Matusz said. "When I went back to the clubhouse and they told me I was shut down, I said to Andy, "How come there are no Matusz or Tillman jerseys in the gift shop?' He told me to 'hang in there.' "

There will probably be a time soon, perhaps as early as this season, when T-shirts and jerseys adorned with Matusz's name and his No. 17 are all over Camden Yards. In one year since the Orioles made him the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft, Matusz tore through the minor leagues, going a combined 11-2 with a 1.91 ERA in 19 starts, and then culminated his brief eight-start run in the Orioles' rotation with a seven-inning, one-run gem at Yankee Stadium.

This spring, the left-hander wowed scouts and opposing hitters all over Florida with his four-pitch repertoire. Baseball pundits view the 23-year-old as the Orioles' best pitcher and have made him the preseason favorite to win American League Rookie the Year, which no Oriole has won since Gregg Olson in 1989.

"There's no other way to say it, but the sky is the limit for the guy if he stays healthy," Trembley said. "He's a bona fide No. 1 for me in the future. The guy is going to win a lot of games."

The Orioles' Opening Day starter, Kevin Millwood, a 14-year veteran who pitched in Atlanta Braves rotations that were considered some of the best in the history of the game, has known Matusz for about six weeks - long enough for him to conclude that "he might be one of the most talented young guys I've ever been around."

Second baseman Brian Roberts, the longest-tenured Oriole, has seen highly touted pitching prospects come and go in the organization, but he said Matusz, who went 5-2 with a 4.63 ERA in eight big league starts last year, stands out.

"I think [ Erik] Bedard was the only other guy that had this kind of stuff, but he didn't figure it out that quickly," Roberts said. "His was kind of a slow progression. I think Matusz has the potential and capability of being that guy pretty fast, but I don't think it would be fair to put that pressure on him, either. This is a tough league, a tough division, and I don't think any of us should expect him to go out and win 18 games with a 2.50 ERA. But certainly he has the capabilities to be a tremendous pitcher in the league."

More than a great arm
Matusz's arsenal includes a fastball that he throws in the low- to mid-90s, a curveball, a slider and a changeup. He has enough confidence and command to throw any of the four pitches in any count. His changeup is particularly devastating and is one of the reasons Matusz is often compared to Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies.

But no dissection of Matusz, who will make his 2010 regular-season debut Thursday, is complete without mention of his intangibles.

Hall of Fame pitcher and team broadcaster Jim Palmer lauded Matusz for his ability to make adjustments and to think his way through an at-bat.

Team officials love that beyond Matusz's baby face, ever-present mischievous grin and slender build is an athlete who is driven by competition and the desire to succeed. They love that his youthful exuberance belies a confidence that he can get anybody out at any time.

"I just know that of all the young guys I've ever had, he really knows what he wants to do, and more than anything, he believes that he can do it," said Kranitz, in his third year as Orioles pitching coach. "I've always said the veterans bring the wisdom and the rookies bring the energy. You see that in a good, young pitcher. The other guys like to follow them. He's a great role model for young guys because he's done it the right way."

Matusz won his debut Aug. 4 at Detroit, but his most memorable 2009 outing came more than a month later. At sold-out Yankee Stadium, which was still buzzing over Derek Jeter's becoming the franchise's all-time hit king a night earlier, Matusz cruised into the seventh inning, having allowed only one run and three hits. Two men were on, one was out and Matusz had just issued a four-pitch walk for one of the few times in his life.

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