Matusz attempts to recapture past glory
Left-hander looks to put difficult 2011 season behind him
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Orioles pitcher Brian Matusz stood on a mound at the Ed Smith Stadium Complex on Wednesday afternoon and threw with such conviction that Matt Wieters, who wasn't even catching Matusz, later singled out his performance as the most impressive of the day.
"It looked a lot like Matusz from 2010," Wieters said in referencing a season in which Matusz posted a 3.63 second-half ERA, including a 3-0 record with a 1.80 ERA in his final five starts. "He had a difficult year last year. For him to have the ball coming out of his hand the way it was [Wednesday], I was impressed."
The Orioles' pitching, strong in numbers and startlingly thin in frontline candidates, can only hope their young catcher proves prophetic. On the heels of a poor statistical season, all the excitement Matusz generated from the end of 2010 has dissipated as the 25-year-old -- once regarded as the team's top lefty -- finds himself competing for a roster spot this spring.
"It was a really tough year," Matusz said of a 2011 season that started on the disabled list (left intercostal strain) and finished 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA in 12 games. "There was that feeling that I didn't want to feel again."
After admitting he wasn't in shape to start last spring, Matusz enlisted the help of Brady Anderson -- named a special assistant in the organization this winter -- and began a rigorous conditioning program toward the end of last year, designed to regain strength.
The pair worked out this offseason, along with several other Orioles pitchers, and a noticeably more-fit Matusz arrived at this year's camp several days ahead of schedule.
"His work ethic will never be anything but excellent again," said Anderson, who now oversees all the organization's conditioning, and is a constant fixture in the new weight room facility. "It just won't be. I won't let it happen, for one. We're friends now and he understands the importance of it. Whatever he does on the field, it won't be based on his power capacity. And that gives an athlete a tremendous peace of mind, too.
"It's bad enough getting hammered on the field; it's especially bad when you maybe think you weren't as prepared as you think you should have been. There's nothing worse for an athlete, or anybody, as having that chronic remorse of 'Wow, I wish I would have done this a little bit better.'"
A former first-round Draft pick, Matusz shot to the Major Leagues from Double-A in 2009, never donning a Triple-A uniform until he was demoted last season. The constant and consistent failure wasn't just disappointing, it was a shock for Matusz -- a former college and high school standout.
"Nobody wants to experience struggles, but after going through them, I was able to learn a lot from them," said Matusz, who credits his father and Anderson for being his two biggest supporters this winter. "Never get complacent with anything. Just being able to battle and grind through the entire season and never give in."
His focused approach this winter had those in the organization buzzing, and Matusz's presence at camp -- where he has stressed competing, but having fun -- has added even more optimism that he can help stabilize the Orioles' rotation.
Matusz is understandingly eager to put 2011 in the rearview mirror and forget it happened, a statement he made several times on Thursday. But the reality is, it's much easier said than done.
"Coming back from a poor performance, until you've rectified it with a solid performance, it's probably all in the back of your mind, whether you say it or not," Anderson said. "I would imagine it's almost impossible not to [think of last season], especially when you think about what his life is like.
"He's in Spring Training now, hasn't pitched yet. Every question [the media] is asking is probably about last year. So, even if he wanted to forget about last year, I'm sure you guys would make it impossible to do so."
The questions will continue to linger with Matusz throughout the spring, although there are subtle hints that he is on the right track. Still devoted to what Anderson calls yearlong training, Matusz appears happier and more relaxed in everyday activities. Wednesday's bullpen session -- while only the second of the spring -- provided early optimism that all of Matusz's hard work will pay off.
"Yeah it does [give you hope]," Wieters said of his initial impression of Matusz. "He's a pitcher who could easily be able to use all four pitches and pitch for a long time in this game. We can make last year just a speed bump, and get him right back on track and he can go back to being a very good pitcher in the Major Leagues."
"He's in a good place mentally and physically," added manager Buck Showalter. "Those are two things you'd like to see to start out with. So, I'm excited to see [Matusz] pitch here. Hopefully, he'll be part of our staff."
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.