Brian Matusz, Orioles' Top Pick in 2008 Draft, Poised to Make Major League Debut

After spending less than a season pitching in the minors, Brian Matusz, the Orioles' top pick in 2008 draft, will likely start against Detroit.
After spending less than a season pitching in the minors, Brian Matusz, the Orioles' top pick in 2008 draft, will likely start against Detroit. (By Dilip Vishwanat -- Getty Images)
By Lacy Lusk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Even in the midst of what likely will be a 12th straight losing season, the Baltimore Orioles have shown positive signs. One of their potential building blocks, 22-year-old left-hander Brian Matusz, is expected to make his major league debut Tuesday night in Detroit despite the organization's attempts to avoid rushing him in his first professional season.

In 11 starts at Class A Frederick and eight starts -- all wins until he threw just one scoreless inning in a cameo Saturday evening -- at Class AA Bowie, the fourth overall pick from the 2008 draft has located his fastball better than ever. That has made him all the more deadly with his above-average curveball, slider and change-up, and his deceptive delivery. By essentially throwing a side session's worth of pitches at New Britain last time out, the way has been cleared for Matusz (pronounced MAT-iss) to take the place of injured Brad Bergesen in the Orioles' rotation.

David Stockstill, the Orioles' director of player development, said the franchise had not planned to send Matusz through the system so quickly, but that the pitcher's success demanded attention.

"You never say never" on him making the majors this season, Stockstill said Sunday. "We knew from his scouting reports as an amateur that he was very advanced. We wanted him to get all the fundamentals and groundwork he could at Frederick and Bowie, and he forced himself into consideration for the big leagues."

Though the Orioles have not announced that Matusz will start against the Tigers, Stockstill said, "The facts are he pitched one inning and was taken out, and he's perfectly healthy."

After Bergesen, who has a bruised left leg after being hit by a line drive Thursday, went on the 15-day disabled list, Andy MacPhail, the Orioles' president of baseball operations, said the team "canvassed everybody" on whether it was time to call up Matusz for his major league debut. Whatever happens in the season's final two months, Matusz said last week that Orioles fans should expect a turnaround -- perhaps as soon as 2010.

"I think next year can be a very good year, and I think it's going to be the start of it," Matusz said at Prince George's Stadium in Bowie a day after pitching seven shutout innings against the Connecticut Defenders in what may have been his final full Class AA start. "It's going to be fun."

Matusz, out of the University of San Diego, had a 1.55 ERA in 46 1/3 innings in the Eastern League with 46 strikeouts and 11 walks. In all but one of his Class AA starts, he has allowed one earned run or less. The Carolina League had a bit more success against him, as he went 4-2 with a 2.16 ERA in 66 2/3 innings.

Matusz said pro ball hasn't been as easy as his numbers indicate. He signed for $3.2 million last year after three years of college and began his career in the Arizona Fall League. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound prospect first sprung his funky delivery, with hesitation in the middle of his windup, on a cast of mostly older players while pitching for the Surprise Rafters near his offseason home in Phoenix. He finished 2-4 with a 4.73 ERA in 26 2/3 innings in the hitter-friendly league. Two of his teammates in Arizona were current Orioles Nolan Reimold and Matt Wieters.

It may have readied him for the hitters he would see with Bowie, but not for the weather.

"Growing up in Arizona, I've pitched when it's 120 [degrees] out, but I'm not used to the humidity," he said. "That's one of the things I've got to adjust to. It's not going to be any different in Baltimore, down the street, and obviously in the big leagues you've got to get used to everything."

Matusz and right-hander Chris Tillman, who made his major league debut Wednesday and was one of five players MacPhail received from Seattle in a February 2008 trade for lefty Erik Bedard, were the organization's two participants in this summer's All-Star Futures Game in St. Louis. They could be key components in a pitching staff that has introduced effective rookies such as Bergesen and David Hernandez but ranks next to last in the American League with a 5.01 ERA.

Put a strong staff with a lineup built around all-star center fielder Adam Jones, 24, catcher Wieters, 23, and outfielders Nick Markakis and Reimold, both 25, and the AL East might get even stronger.

"The pitchers up there are doing good, and along with Wieters and Reimold and the guys they already had, they can run some pretty good hitters out there," Bowie Manager Brad Komminsk said.

Matusz, the Los Angeles Angels' fourth-round pick in 2005, has been a favorite of scouts since high school. At San Diego, he was able to continue his Catholic education while pitching for a strong college baseball program. His minor league baseball schooling appears to have been even faster than that of Wieters, the fifth pick in 2007 out of Georgia Tech. Wieters spent a half-season with Frederick and a half-season with Bowie last year before stopping at Class AAA Norfolk for 39 games this season. Matusz said last week that he feels stronger than he has all season.

When Connecticut Manager Steve Decker, a major league catcher for seven seasons in the 1990s, turned in a report on Matusz to his bosses in the San Francisco Giants organization, he drew a comparison to 140-game winner Charlie Leibrandt, who was dubbed "Rembrandt" by Kansas City Royals teammate Willie Wilson for his artistic pitching style.

"I didn't look at [Matusz's] stuff and go, 'Whoa man, this guy is filthy,' but I did like the way he commanded everything with a little bit of funkiness in his delivery," Decker said. "I think he throws a little bit harder than Leibrandt, but I'm sure Leibrandt threw hard when he was young, too."

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