ST. PETERSBURG -- With suspended manager Buck Showalter looking on from the visiting general manager's suite at Tropicana Field, the Orioles did everything in their power to make sure their new skipper didn't get a front-row seat to the Rays' postseason party.
"I definitely thought about that going into the start," lefty Brian Matusz said of Tampa Bay's magic number, which was at one entering Monday's series opener. "I didn't want this game to be the reason why they are celebrating."
And the 23-year-old rookie made sure of it. Matusz tied a career high with eight strikeouts and fired seven scoreless innings against the American League East-leading Rays to give the Orioles a 4-0 series-opening win that, coupled with Boston's win, forced Tampa Bay to keep the bottles corked.
"It was as good as it looked," said Showalter, who watched Matusz's outing alongside president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail as part of a one-game suspension stemming from the events leading up to Sunday's ejection in Toronto.
Showalter and MacPhail, along with a paltry crowd of 12,446 that lefty David Price called "embarrassing," watched as Matusz used an impressive four-pitch arsenal to mow down the Rays and continue on an impressive two-month stretch.
"I think he's just learning from [his experience in the Major Leagues]," Showalter said of Matusz, a preseason Rookie of the Year candidate who has rebounded from a dismal first half to post a 1.58 ERA in his last seven outings. "He just presents a lot of different looks. You ask yourself about left-handed starters, how are they going to protect and defend themselves against right-handed hitters? That's what happens up here in the big leagues. He's starting to grasp what it takes."
With an improved grip on his slider, Matusz, who took home American League Rookie of the Month honors in August, needed just 45 pitches to get through the first four innings, allowing only Jason Bartlett's one-out first-inning single over that stretch. Following a pitch that went wayward and hit Willy Aybar two outs in, Matusz struck out Ben Zobrist to start a string of 10 straight Rays batters who were sent back to the bench baffled.
"He did not miss a spot all night," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Matusz, whom he dubbed "outstanding."
"He commanded every pitch that he had," Maddon added. "We knew that he was good. Earlier this season he was not pitching as well, but that was about as good as he can be tonight."
So good, in fact, that outfielder Nick Markakis, who contributed two big RBIs, found himself seeking out pitching coach Rick Kranitz postgame to talk a little more Matusz.
"I think that's the best I've seen him throw," Markakis said. "He was getting ahead of batters, getting the ball and getting right back on the mound throwing strikes, locating his fastball. He was putting his curveball where he wanted it. It's pretty fun to watch when he's on a roll like that."
Facing a lineup missing power bat Evan Longoria (strained left quadriceps), Matusz allowed just three hits and pitched out of his only real jam in the fifth. In that frame, a single and a walk put the tying and go-ahead runs on for the Rays, but Matusz struck out Sean Rodriguez and Dan Johnson for a quick two outs. He was aided by some luck with B.J. Upton's hard-hit ball, which struck the third-base bag to limit him to an infield single and keep Kelly Shoppach at third.
"I like to get in my groove and run with it," said Matusz, who got ahead with strike one to 15 consecutive batters to open the game. "I got my arm angle going now, I got a nice downward plane -- it's compact and it really helps out. ... I had all four pitches working for me, and when that's working for you, you know it's going to be good."
Rays rookie Wade Davis matched Matusz early, but the Orioles were able to scratch out a run in the fifth courtesy of Markakis' RBI triple, which plated Cesar Izturis to break a scoreless tie. The O's got to Davis again in the top of the seventh, causing an exit by the right-hander, who recorded one out before ending the 89-pitch outing in favor of lefty reliever Randy Choate, who was tasked with facing the left-handed-hitting Markakis.
"I don't particularly see him well ... he's tough," said Markakis, who entered the game hitless in seven tries off Choate before punching an RBI single into right field on an 0-2 pitch. "[Now] I'm 1-for-8 against him. It was a good time to get him."
Markakis' hit scored Pie as the O's capitalized on catcher Shoppach's fielding error while trying to corral Zobrist's pinpoint throw to the plate. Ty Wigginton followed with a sacrifice fly, and Luke Scott's RBI single increased the Orioles' lead to four to help quell any notion of celebrating in the home dugout.
"It's nice," said bench coach Jeff Datz, who filled in for Showalter. "When you are in the position we are in ... [you] try to come in here and play the role of spoiler and not let them pop champagne against you.
"Hopefully, we can do it for another night or two and go from there."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.