ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Just when everyone was starting to feel all warm and fuzzy about the opening of the regular season, reality crept into the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field late Friday afternoon.
Left-hander Brian Matusz, who is widely regarded as the cornerstone of the club's pitching future, walked disconsolately to his locker and put his street clothes back on. Instead of getting ready to chart pitches in advance of Saturday night's scheduled start against the Tampa Bay Rays, he was getting ready to undergo an MRI to determine the cause of soreness beneath his left shoulder blade.
The results would not cheer him up. He suffered an intercostal strain and could be lost for up to a month. The Orioles placed him on the 15-day disabled list, moved Chris Tillman into Saturday night's start and then did something else they had hoped they would not have to do so soon. They recalled top pitching prospect Zach Britton from the Triple-A roster to start the series finale on Sunday.
No doubt, that half of the evening news will be welcomed by a lot of Orioles fans, but it really isn't a very happy development. Britton would have been here in a few weeks anyway and the O's would have been able to keep him under reserve for seven seasons instead of six. This way, he may become eligible for free agency a year sooner.
And, as they say, that was the good news, along with Jeremy Guthrie's terrific Opening Night performance and the O's 4-1 victory, but it was not a good day. Matusz will be sidelined for at least three weeks with an injury that seldom heals easily.
Manager Buck Showalter also hinted at some other possible contingencies before moving Tillman up, but there was nothing else that would soften the blow of losing the club's No. 2 starter before he could take the mound for his first start of the season.
The Orioles and their fans have been leaning heavily on the upgraded offensive lineup to justify guarded optimism about the club's chances of being more competitive this season, but the ability to go nose-to-nose with the beasts of the American League East on any consistent basis has always depended on the continuing development of the young starting pitchers.
So what have we got here?
Matusz is now down for an indeterminate period and the Orioles -- at least for a few hours -- were without a No. 2 starter for the second game of the season. Tillman was the obvious choice to fill that one start and Brad Bergesen could have pitched four or five innings on Sunday, but neither one of them had a particularly inspiring spring.
Tillman had a respectable 3.93 ERA, but he allowed 31 baserunners in 18 1/3 innings. Bergesen pitched 17 innings against major league competitive and had a 5.82 ERA, also allowing 31 baserunners. You don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that's an average of nearly two baserunners an inning, which probably isn't going to get it done in the American League East.
Obviously, it would have been real nice if the Justin Duchscherer experiment had panned out, but his comeback attempt appears to have fizzled.
Which brings us back to Britton, who was the Orioles' most effective starter this spring. The club optioned him back to Norfolk a few days ago and clearly intended to delay his arrival in the major leagues until the end of April. Instead, he is now positioned nicely to make a run at the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
Even though MacPhail's first instinct is to maintain control over his best young players for as long as possible, the Orioles found themselves in a very delicate position with Matusz temporarily out of the rotation. Even if they had filled out the weekend without a roster move, they would have needed a fifth starter on April 10.
The O's need to build on last year's late-season turnaround and they need not to leave their fans any room to doubt their commitment to compete this year. That's why it would have been problematic to plug the hole left by Matusz with somebody like Chris Jakubauskas or Ryan Drese.
Showalter did not openly campaign for Britton, but he made it clear throughout spring training that he is committed to trying to win as many games as possible this year. It's probably fair to assume he pushed hard for the best possible option to fill Matusz's place in the rotation.
The last thing Showalter wants to do is risk a repeat of last year's disastrous start, especially after doing so much to wipe that memory out of the minds of Orioles fans and after the front office did so much to upgrade the offense.
That offense found a way to beat one of the best pitchers in baseball on Friday night, but the Orioles weren't going to hit their way out of this mess.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.