Stronger Matusz looks to shrug off weight of poor 2011 season

Left-hander said to be in better shape physically and mentally this spring

February 23, 2012|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — Brian Matusz arrived at Orioles spring training this week looking for a fresh start, hoping that an offseason dedicated to putting the memories of a nightmarish 2011 season behind him would begin to pay off.

For Matusz, who at this time last season was projected to be the front-line left-hander in the Orioles' starting rotation, Sarasota offers the perfect spring search for redemption.

Matusz began last season on the disabled list with a strained intercostal muscle. When he returned, he couldn't regain the form of his promising 2010 season, going 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA, the highest single-season ERA for any pitcher with more than 10 starts in major league history.

"Last year was tough," Matusz said Thursday. "There was that feeling that I didn't want to feel again. It was motivation to get out there this offseason and work hard and really get after it."

Matusz, who turned 25 this month, has acknowledged he didn't arrive in Sarasota last year in the best shape. And the key to turning his misfortunes around was getting stronger, so he asked former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson for help late last season, after he had been jettisoned to Triple-A Norfolk.

He spent the offseason training with Anderson, who was named a special assistant to executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, in Irvine, Calif., along with Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman, nonroster invitee Scott Beerer and former Orioles Jeremy Guthrie and Rick VandenHurk.

"His work ethic will never be anything but excellent again," Anderson said. "It just won't be. The standards have been set. There's performances that he knows he's met already. He's going to have to maintain those and improve on those off the field.

"As far as ever slipping back into not being the most powerful athlete you can be," Anderson added, "that won't happen anymore. I won't let it happen, for one."

But getting physically stronger was just one part of Matusz's rebuilding effort. The other part was mental.

"Last year was a lot of negatives," Matusz said. "Nobody wants to experience struggles, but after going through them, I was able to learn a lot from them — never get complacent with anything, just being able to battle and grind through the entire season and never give in."

He leaned on his father, Michael, to remind him about what brought him success when he was younger. He also spoke with Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair at length on multiple occasions about getting his confidence back.

"You could tell by maybe the first of January that his voice started changing," Adair said. "There was some strength in his voice. Everybody talks about losing confidence, but when you go through all the stuff he was going through from a physical standpoint, regaining that confidence means a lot."

It's still early in camp — Matusz has thrown just two bullpen sessions this spring — but his teammates have noticed a difference. In talking about the highlights of the early sessions, catcher Matt Wieters singled Matusz out, saying he has noticed an improvement in the lefty's mechanics from last season.

"He looked a lot like Matusz from 2010," Wieters said after the pitcher's bullpen session Wednesday. "After having that difficult year last year, for him to have the ball come out of his hand the way it was [Wednesday], I was impressed."

The learning curve for a young pitcher is always an uncertain one, but Adair said it was important to avoid getting caught up in fixing Matusz's mechanics and instead feed off his increased strength.

"We're trying to get him out of a mechanical mindset, more than anything, and get him more athletic, more dynamic and more explosive in what he does as opposed to 'My front arm's got to be here, my legs have to do this.'" Adair said. "We're trying to get away from all that, but at the same time trying to get him fundamentally sound. You want guys to be thought-free when they're competing."

Matusz will still face a tough fight for a starting rotation spot. There are a dozen pitchers in this camp vying for five jobs, and since Matusz still has minor league options, he faces an uphill climb.

"He knows he's better than [he showed in 2011]," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It was like the perfect storm of negative things for him last year. And we're trying to make sure the perfect storm is going in the other direction. It can change that quickly. He's had a great offseason. I hope he can follow it up."

Anderson, who said he now calls Matusz his friend, is one in Matusz's corner. Aside from the workouts, he relayed to the young pitcher how he overcame his own major league struggles.

He also impressed upon Matusz an important message — that his work to improve is really just beginning.

"He looks happier," Anderson said. "He looks like a different person, but it's just impossible to completely rid a season that just happened before you go out and take care of the next season. It's hard to do. … Coming back from a poor performance, until you've rectified it with a solid performance, it's probably all in the back of your mind, whether you say it or not. It's a fact of life in any sport."

eencina@baltsun.com

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