Matusz mum about his expectations for season

February 22, 2011|Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — — Brian Matusz doesn't want to get ahead of himself, which is why he smiles and plays it coy when you ask him about his expectations for the 2011 season.

He knows that preseason expectations and three bucks will get you a nice cup of coffee at Starbucks. That was the lesson of last spring.

Matusz was supposed to be one of the leading candidates for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, until he and just about every one of his teammates walked off a cliff at some point during the absolute trainwreck that was the first half of the 2010 schedule.

He won his first two decisions and then did not register another victory until July, running off a string of nine consecutive losses and winning just once between April 18 and Aug. 4.

"You never want to have failure like that,'' he said on Tuesday, "but if it happens to you, you've got to learn from it."

Of course, you can't learn how not to have one of the top leadoff hitters in the game (Brian Roberts) fall off the map because of a lower back injury. And you can't learn much from losing your projected closer (Michael Gonzalez) early or watching one of your supposed heart-of-the-lineup sluggers (Garrett Atkins) forget how to hit.

What you can do — if you're a hot prospect like Matusz — is close ranks with your pitching coach and your similarly struggling rotation mates and try to turn an extremely negative situation into something you can build on.

Everybody knows what happened after that. When Matusz defeated the Los Angeles Angels in Buck Showalter's second game as Orioles manager, he helped spark a personal and team-wide turnaround that almost defied explanation.

Matusz gave up a run on seven hits over six innings that night to follow up a strong performance by Jeremy Guthrie, and the O's went on to win eight of their first nine games under Showalter. The dramatic turnaround carried through to the end of the season, and Matusz led the way with a 7-1 record and 2.18 ERA. He gave up one earned run or fewer in eight of his final 11 games, almost all of them against contending teams.

So, other than the managerial change, what accounted for such a dynamic change of personal fortune?

"There were some mechanical things I had to work out,'' Matusz said. "You're going to go through physical slumps, but you've got to gain the confidence that you can win even when you don't have your best stuff."

The credit is easy enough to spread around. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz gets his due for keeping all the young starters focused on what they needed to do to continue their development. Showalter deserves some love for — almost inexplicably — establishing a winning attitude in record time. The law of averages probably played a role, too, since a pitcher as talented as Matusz wasn't going to stay down forever.

Matusz also owes a debt to veteran pitcher Kevin Millwood, who was brought in to be a mentor to the young starters and ended up fulfilling that role by showing how a true professional goes about his business when everything that can go wrong goes even worse.

He couldn't buy a victory during the first two months of the season and ended up as one of the losingest pitchers in the major leagues, but he never gave up on himself or his young teammates.

"Kevin was a perfect example of that,'' Matusz said. "He had never had a season like that, but he kept going out there and he always had a plan. He still found a way to have fun and help other people."

Somehow, Matusz pulled all those strings together down the stretch and turned a disastrous season into a reaffirmation of his physical talent and mental toughness. He may not want to talk about his statistical goals for this season, but he isn't hiding from what he believes he can become.

"When I look back on that now and look at the lineups and the teams that I was able to beat back to back to back, that's a good feeling,'' he said, referring to a four-start stretch during which he beat the Rangers, White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees. "That gives you confidence that you don't have to have bad starts.

" I didn't have my best stuff in all those games, but I was able to grind my way through and get to the bullpen. That's when you need to put trust in your bullpen, and that makes the game much easier."

Not surprisingly, Matusz looks at the upgrades in this year's bullpen and the improved run-production potential of the offense and thinks that things can only get better.

"It just builds more confidence," he said. "This year, you're not going to feel like you have to go out there and hold the other team to one or two runs. All you have to do is go out and keep us in the game and we'll score some runs. It gives you confidence on the mound when all those pieces come together.

"I'm ready to start a game tomorrow if I had to. I think everybody is just itching to get out there. You come in prepared and you just want to get going."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog

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