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.
"Once I had spurts of success, there were times when I would think, 'Alright I've got it back,' and I got complacent," Matusz said. "In the big leagues, you get complacent for any given time and you get knocked down pretty quick. That's just how it is in this game and especially in this organization. With the Orioles, there's so much depth and there's always someone there to take your spot. For me it's just to stay consistent and to get better every single day. That's how I was in college. That's starting to come back to me."
A leap of faith
Matusz is determined to return to the starting rotation, but he performed so well in relief that it might take a tremendous leap of faith by the Orioles brass to put him there. In 18 career relief appearances, Matusz owns a 1.35 ERA, having allowed just five hits and two runs over 13 1/3 innings. As a starter, he has a career 21-33 record and a 5.51 ERA.
Competing with Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson, Jair Jurrjens and T.J. McFarland for the team's No. 5 rotation spot, Matusz has pitched well this spring. In 10 innings, Matusz has allowed just three runs. He's coming off an impressive start Wednesday against the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, where he struck out seven in four scoreless innings without allowing a hit.
Showalter has promised Matusz at least one more start before the manager begins considering whether to continue stretching out Matusz as a starter or to begin to prepare him for a relief role. Matusz will make his next start Tuesday back in Fort Myers — this time against the Boston Red Sox in what should be his biggest Grapefruit League test yet.
"I don't begrudge him that he wants to help the team as a starter," Showalter said. "I want him to. Either way, it's a no-lose situation for Brian and us the way I look at it. It's a positive on both sides. I'm not sure he thinks of it that way, and I don't want him to think that way. I want him to think, 'Hey, I want to help this club as a starter.'"
In dissecting his last spring outing against the Twins, Matusz didn't talk about the four hitless innings. Instead he harped on throwing a full-count ball four to Josh Willingham with two outs in his fourth inning of work, forcing him into a 10-pitch at-bat against Justin Morneau before retiring him.
"I ended up throwing extra pitches, and in a nine-inning start, those extra pitches could really end up hurting me," Matusz said. "There are always things, regardless of the start, I can do to get better. For me that's the goal."
Matusz has been aggressive with his 91-92 mph fastball — a pitch that dipped to 85 mph during his injury-plagued 2011 season — and his slider is coming around. He said he's looking forward to honing his curveball and changeup with Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair. He doesn't know how many more starts he will get to prove he's rotation-worthy, but he goes into Tuesday's outing with a sense of urgency.
"We all want [the fifth spot], so it's almost like you've got to be in midseason form right now and come out and attack and really turn heads," Matusz said."For me, I'm trying to pitch within myself and do whatever I can to be as good as possible. …. I'm about going out there and attacking and performing, especially in a spring like now where I'm really fighting for that spot and it's important for me to be in that midseason form and prove, not only to the coaches but to myself, that I can be that fifth guy."
Mike Matusz says that when his son emerged from those long conversations along the water in Norfolk, he came back with clarity. He said Brian would have been successful whether he returned a starter or reliever. It was more about Brian's frame of mind.
And in Matusz's mind, all the ups and downs are in the past. It's time to make good on the promise that Orioles have always had in him.
"I feel that's over with," Matusz said of his past struggles. "It's time to go out and put together a full season, time to throw 200 innings and to work hard throughout the whole year. I have goals of not just winning the World Series, but I have goals of being one of the top pitchers in major league baseball, because I know in the past I've shown glimpses of it. I just haven't put it together for a full season.
"The only way to prove it is to show it on the field. That's all that's left. I could sit here all say, I'm going to be the best, but the only way to prove it is to do it, and it's about time."
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