Matusz shuts down Tigers in O's debut
Markakis, Izturis provide support in rookie's first win
DETROIT -- The comparison is flattering, the coincidence nothing short of astounding.
Brian Matusz made his big league debut for the Orioles on Tuesday, a start that came 18 years to the day after former Baltimore ace Mike Mussina began his career. Matusz, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, conjured up his best Mussina command-and-control act in an 8-2 win over the Tigers.
And by doing so, he helped Baltimore set a piece of modern baseball history. The Orioles are the only team since 1900 to have five pitchers win their big league debut in the same season. Only one other team -- the 1888 Chicago White Stockings, who later became the Cubs -- has had that many rookies win their debut.
For one night, though, the focus wasn't on history as much as what had just transpired.
"He is the real thing. This is one that everybody should take a great deal of pride in for a long time," said Baltimore manager Dave Trembley of Matusz. "The night belongs to Matusz in some respects, but it belongs to everybody with the Orioles because certainly a lot of people helped to make this happen tonight."
Matusz, who signed with the Orioles less than a year ago, has been followed by hype all the way through the farm system. The southpaw started this season with Class A Frederick and went 4-2 with a 2.16 ERA in his first 11 starts, and he followed that up by pitching to a 7-0 record and a 1.55 mark with Double-A Bowie.
All of a sudden -- thanks to some injuries and ineffectiveness at the big league level -- the Orioles were reconsidering their plan to let him slowly mature in the Minors. Matusz, who had always been billed as a highly polished pitcher, lived up to his reputation by mixing in four pitches and consistently keeping Detroit off balance.
"What we saw in Spring Training was not a mirage," said Trembley. "This is the real Matusz. He is able to rebound, he is able to adjust. I don't care if it is 'A' ball or the big leagues, he is still going to pitch the way he pitches. I think that's why he is successful and I think that's why he will be very, very good for a long time."
Matusz, who admitted to a case of nerves in his Tuesday debut, never gave in to the moment. When asked if his outing was everything he expected, the rookie responded quickly and assuredly.
"Everything and more," he said. "You dream about that day as a little kid. Every time someone makes their debut you always think, 'That could be me some day,' and for it to come so quick and unexpected, I felt like I was ready."
The left-hander was gifted a two-run lead in the first two innings and escaped a bases-loaded jam in the second by virtue of a diving play from shortstop Cesar Izturis. The Tigers (55-50) pushed runners to second and third in the fifth, but Matusz responded by striking out Marcus Thames and Ryan Raburn to end the threat.
"He's a tough kid," said pitching coach Rick Kranitz. "You could just see when [the Tigers] went to second and third in the fifth inning that he turned it up a notch. And that says something about the kid. He made his best pitches in that situation, which was huge. They made him work. That was not an easy game for him."
Detroit also put two runners on base in the third inning, but Matusz was able to escape on a fly ball. The Orioles took control for good with a three-run burst in the sixth inning, and Trembley elected to go to the bullpen. Matusz (1-0) came out on the high side of a five-run cushion and helped the Orioles snap a four-game skid.
And more than that, he helped cement a tone for the rest of the season. Baltimore (45-61) recently promoted a bookend to Matusz in right-hander Chris Tillman, and the pair made Detroit stand up and take notice.
"I was impressed," said Detroit manager Jim Leyland. "He has good stuff and really good pitchability for a young guy. He was [willing] to throw changeups while behind in a count. He's four-pitch guy and is impressive. I liked both of the guys they threw the last two nights. They've got some good young arms."
Right fielder Nick Markakis dumped a run-scoring single in the first inning and added a monstrous two-run homer to right-center in the sixth. Izturis, who helped Matusz escape that key jam in the second inning, added a solo shot of his own in the fifth. But the night belonged to Matusz, Baltimore's ace-in-the-making.
"It was his night tonight," said catcher Matt Wieters. "Once he got on the mound, he just went back to pitching and he located better tonight than I could've ever imagined. He commanded his fastball to both sides of the plate and mixed in his changeup. He mixed in some breaking balls late in the game and it got real good late in the game."
Despite the odd bit of symmetry, nobody's expecting Matusz to haul off and echo Mussina's career. That right-hander and former ace won 147 games for Baltimore and 123 after departing for the rival Yankees, setting a tough act to follow. But with his current company -- Tillman, Jason Berken, David Hernandez and prospect Jake Arrieta -- the Orioles can see a foundation built on pitching that could help lift them out of their doldrums.
"It means that the organization is going in the right direction," said Kranitz of the fifth debut victory. "It's just showing what the possibilities are for this franchise, and not only that, just look around the field. You see the guys that are young and upcoming straight up the middle of the diamond. It's pretty good. There's a lot of exciting things here, but we've got to win ballgames. It's one thing to look at the potential, but we've got to win ballgames."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.