With newfound confidence, Brian Matusz aims for a starting role

Soul-searching conversation with his father led to the lefty embracing an important bullpen job with Orioles last year

  • Brian Matusz thrived out of the bullpen in the playoffs, including a key strikeout of Josh Hamilton in the Orioles' wild-card victory over the Rangers.
Brian Matusz thrived out of the bullpen in the playoffs, including… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
March 15, 2013|By Eduardo A. Encina | The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — Brian Matusz's roller-coaster season had landed him in Triple-A Norfolk last August, and he was walking along the city's harbor in the shadows of majestic naval battleships with his father, Mike.

Days earlier, the Orioles left-hander was told that the organization was moving to the bullpen. He initially saw it as another demotion, and two relief appearances in, the results were unspectacular.

He called home to Arizona and asked his father to visit him in Virginia. He had been jettisoned back to the minors for the second straight season, and after 1½ months in Triple-A, he was forced to watch from the outside as the Orioles were in the midst of a frenetic pennant race.

Matusz needed to be reminded of the promise of his younger years and what made him the first pitcher selected in the 2008 draft, so he turned to the man who probably knows him better than anyone else.

"I was really struggling," Matusz said. "We talked, and in his own ways, he motivated me to get back on track and stay focused on the important things and the things I needed to do to be a part of something special. … Being around him reminded me of things I had done in the past to get back on track. He was always supportive through the ups and downs."

Seven months later, Matusz is in a different place. After embracing the reliever role and becoming an integral part of the Orioles sealing their first playoff berth in 15 years, the 26-year-old Matusz is hoping to springboard back into the starting rotation.

"Over the past couple years, I've been through some rough times and I feel like I've been able to learn a lot about myself through those rough times," Matusz said. "There was a point where I was struggling and I couldn't dig myself out of a hole. Now I've been able, with last year's success out of the bullpen, to see that it's still there. It's just a matter of continuing to work hard."

'The mental part'

Mike Matusz's talk to his son had little to do with pitching and more to do with the fight Brian showed in his younger days.

"It wasn't on mechanics or anything like that," Mike Matusz said. "It was just the mental part of the game, why he was so successful at those times. We talked about what got him there."

After Matusz was recalled from Norfolk on Aug. 24, momentum built as he emerged as a shut-down late-inning reliever, used both in situational spots and extended outings. He pitched in all six postseason games — five of them scoreless outings — compiling a 1.93 ERA.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said the confidence Matusz was able to build in the bullpen was invaluable. And Showalter showed confidence in Matusz by putting him in difficult situations.

There might not have been a bigger one than when he gave Matusz the ball with two outs in the eighth inning of the do-or-die American League wild-card game in Texas to face slugger Josh Hamilton, who represented the tying run. Matusz struck out the former AL MVP on three pitches, and the Orioles eventually won 5-1.

"You can see it in his face," Showalter said. "Let's face it. Guys want to please their teammates and they want to feel like they're a part of helping the club win. You know he wants to start, but he knows that it's really cool that [he's] helping the team here. He went through a stretch where he didn't feel that way.

"When Brian went to the bullpen, he knew he brought an element that we needed, and he was impacting our team every night, whether he pitched or not. He played a role just having him down there. And believe me, there was a lot of talk around the league, so people had to construct lineups and do certain things in games because of Brian Matusz."

Matusz believes he's come to terms with what caused his struggles as a starter. After suffering a strain in the intercorsal muscles that run between the ribs in the beginning of the 2011 season, he said he fell behind and couldn't regain his strength. He began working with fitness guru Brady Anderson, now the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, and showing a stronger commitment to his fitness.

Last season, he battled through tides of inconsistency. In one stretch from late-April to early June, Matusz recorded six quality starts in an eight-outing span. He also went through a rough five-start losing streak that led to his demotion to Norfolk on July 1. Over the season, he also was dealing with abdomen discomfort — he had successful surgery days after the season ended — which didn't affect his pitching but hindered his regular-season workout regimen.

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