As the Orioles packed up for their final road trip of a surprising first half Sunday evening, left-hander Brian Matusz was left behind, the obvious casualty of a club — and a starting rotation — that is seemingly wilting as the summer progresses.
Matusz, in a funk for his past five starts, secured a trip to Triple-A Norfolk by failing to get through the fifth in a 6-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians — the Orioles’ ninth defeat in their past 12 games.
“In my last five, six outings [I] just haven't been getting the job done,” said Matusz, moments after a 15-minute, closed-door meeting with Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “Today was just really inconsistent … It’s killing the bullpen. It’s making it tough, so moves have to be made. I have to go down and get better.”
Things have declined so far for the club’s one-time future ace — who appeared to be turning around his season with a 4-2 record in May — that when Showalter walked to the mound to remove Matusz with two runners on and no outs in the fifth, a faction of the announced crowd of 16,689 cheered. And when the 25-year-old walked to the dugout he was showered with boos.
“Right now, my confidence isn’t there because I haven’t been winning ballgames,” said Matusz, who has lost five straight and is 6-19 in the last season and a half. “I know I have the stuff, but I just have to put it all together.”
Suddenly, as the All-Star break looms one week away, the Orioles (42-36) are steamrolling toward an identity crisis.
They are in second place in the American League East and just acquired a likely Hall of Famer — Jim Thome — for a prospective pennant push. They are also injured and undermanned.
Maybe they are a little bit of both, but on the afternoon in which the Orioles learned they would send multiple players to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2005, the team again resembled the also-rans that have been so prominent at Camden Yards in the last decade-plus.
The Indians (40-38), who had dropped five straight before coming to Baltimore, outscored the Orioles 32-18 while winning three of four.
“We’re fine,” said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who had two of the club’s six hits Sunday. “We are playing our [butts] off. These things happen. We are not playing our best baseball. But we are still in it. We are not pushing ourselves out of it.”
The root problem for the Orioles is a sudden inability for their starters to get outs and go deep into games. In their past six contests, the Orioles rotation has lasted just 26 innings, allowed 48 hits and has posted an 11.42 ERA.
Matusz (5-10) is the most alarming example of a rotation gone wrong. He served up two homers and five runs (four earned) in just four-plus innings. In his past five starts, spanning just 21 1/3 innings, Matusz has allowed 40 hits, 13 walks and 20 earned runs for an 8.44 ERA.
“He’s not the only guy that’s had some struggles,” Showalter said. “I don’t want to hang it all on Brian. We’ve had some other people that, just statistically looking at it, you know they’ve got to be better.”
Matusz, whose ERA climbed to 5.42 while tying the league lead in losses, becomes the second member of the rotation to be sent down in less than 24 hours. Tommy Hunter, who was 3-4 with a 6.11 ERA in 15 games (13 starts) was sent to Norfolk on Saturday night. Jake Arrieta and Dana Eveland, who made a spot start Saturday, are clinging to tenuous rotation slots.
“Without stating the obvious, what’s going on is not good enough. It’s not good enough,” Showalter said. “I got it. They got it, too. Nobody knows better than Brian and nobody knows better than Dana and Jake and some of the other guys. It’s a competitive place for you, me. We have to bring what we need to bring.”
For now, the Orioles will recall a reliever to take Matusz’s space on the roster and provide more depth in the bullpen, especially with Miguel Gonzalez, who was promoted Sunday and forced to go 4 1/3 innings in relief of Matusz.
“I think the team needs better pitching and I believe that Brian can pitch better,” said Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette. “With a couple adjustments that we can help him make at Triple-A, we should be able to get him back on track.”
But rotation changes seem impending, with both lefty Zach Britton and Chris Tillman available at Norfolk. Duquette said he would look internally first for solutions to the rotation — though he said Gonzalez wasn’t one right now — before seriously exploring outside alternatives.