Fixing Brian Matusz

What do the Orioles do with Brian  Matusz, a 24-year-old lefty who was projected to emerge as a frontline starter this season? On Monday, Matusz tied the shortest non-injury start of his career, a four-out outing at Yankee Stadium that ballooned his 2011 ERA to 9.84.

“I don’t know that he’s doing us any good or we’re doing him any good [by keeping him in the rotation], “ president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said of Matusz, who made what looks like his final start this season after allowing five runs on five hits and two walks over 1 1/3 innings. “But [the decision] really is a function of the manager and the pitching coach.”

When asked if Matusz would be shut down for the season, manager Buck Showalter was noncommittal. But when posed the question if it was becoming difficult to run out the struggling lefty — who has pitched to an 11.42 ERA in four starts since being recalled from Triple-A – Showalter didn’t hesitate with his response.

“Of course it is,” said Showalter, who has watched Matusz surrender 25 hits (six homers) and eight walks over his last 17 1/3 innings. “I mean, not, of course it is. Obviously, where we were, we thought we’d look at him to start and see where we were afterward.”
Sometime in the next day or so, Showalter will sit down with pitching coach Rick Adair and Matusz and the three of them will work toward a solution, one that very well could involve Matusz shutting it down or continuing to work on things without making another official start. Asked if he felt he deserved another chance in the rotation, Matusz said, “That’s not my decision. I’m going to take the ball when Buck gives it to me, I m going to keep fighting, keep working hard and be able to build off the positive that I’ve had.”

Those positives are few and far between this season.  Since missing the first two months with a left intercostal muscle strain that forced him to the disabled list after making the Opening Day roster as the team’s No. 2 starter, Matusz has been unable to find his footing. The Orioles’ first-round Draft pick in 2008, Matusz was the American League Rookie of the Month last August, going 6-0 with a 1.57 ERA in his last eight starts down the stretch and finishing the season tops among AL rookies in strikeouts and games started.

That dazzling form has been nowhere to be found in 2011. Matusz has one win in 11 starts, a 5 1/3-inning outing against a mediocre Oakland lineup that was followed with seven consecutive losses before Monday’s no-decision.

“I feel for the kid,” infielder Mark Reynolds, one of three Orioles who homered, said of Matusz’s slide.  “I guess he had a pretty good year last year, a lot of people had high expectations for him this year. So hopefully he takes this offseason, regroups and comes back strong and comes back healthy in the spring. And [he] can forget about this year and move forward.”

After retiring the first two batters he faced on Monday, Matusz’s day went downhill as Mark Teixeira went yard for a solo homer and Andruw Jones drove in another two-out run. Matusz issued a second-inning leadoff walk to rookie Jesus Montero and, one out later, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson belted a pair of doubles to spell the end of his afternoon.

“I felt good just made bad pitches,” said Matusz, who has allowed five or more earned runs in six consecutive starts. “A team like the Yankees will jump on you when you’re down, faster than you even think.”

Matusz has admitted that perhaps he wasn’t in the best shape to start the season, and he was sent down for a six-week stint in the Minors to regain his form, although the lefty’s early exit Monday did little to dispel the notion that he has not progressed as planned.

“If you just look at it statistically, I understand what it looks like,” Showlter said. “Brian, with our help and with his help, he’s going to show it to us again. It just wasn’t there for him today. He’s capable of better. We know that. It’s not there right now.”

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