SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — Baltimore’s Brian Matusz says he learned a lot from his struggles last season and is determined to regain the form that once made him one of baseball’s brightest young pitching prospects.
The 25-year-old left-hander worked on his strength and conditioning with former Orioles star Brady Anderson this winter, consulted with pitching coach Rick Adair about his mechanics on the mound and had conversations with his dad about what it will take to put a disappointing year behind him.
Matusz impressed teammates and manager Buck Showalter during his first spring training bullpen session, however all agree it’s too early declare he’s back — much less assume he’ll be able to win a spot in the starting rotation coming out of what figures to be a competitive camp.
“I feel like the stuff is there, just a little bit inconsistent right now. So, I’m on a good track. I feel good about these upcoming weeks,” Matusz, 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA in 12 starts last year, said Thursday.
“My mind-set is to just compete and be myself mainly,” he said. “Just go out, focusing on the things I do well and compete and have fun with it at the same time.”
After the season he had in 2011, that would be a step forward — even if Matusz doesn’t win a job by opening day. There could be as many as a dozen candidates for the five-man rotation, including left-handed offseason acquisitions Tsuyoshi Wada, Wei-Yin Chen and Dana Eveland.
Matusz lost his last nine decisions, and his ERA last season was the highest-ever for a pitcher making at least 10 starts. He was scratched from his first scheduled start of 2011, placed on the disabled list because of strained rib cage muscle and never recovered. The Orioles demoted him to the minors in late June, recalled him in August and dropped from the rotation in September.
“Last year was a lot of negatives. … No one wants to experience struggles. But going through them, I was able to learn a lot,” Matusz said, adding that the humbling season taught him to “never get complacent with anything,” to keep battling and never give up on himself.
The fourth pick in the 2008 draft sought Anderson’s help this winter to improve his strength and conditioning and said he reported to spring training feeling stronger and faster. Adair helped him with his mechanics, and his dad talked to him about “getting back to where I was as a younger kid and getting to the things that worked well for me.”
Matusz is encouraged by the way he’s thrown the ball since arriving at spring training.
“I’ve never been into looking at video, watching too much film. I like to judge a lot of my outings just off of feel. I feel like it’s hard to remember what that old form felt like, especially after the struggles of last year and just really being out of my element,” the left-hander said.
“But I’m starting to feel like that old form is coming back,” he added. “Being able to just have confidence on the mound, just being athletic, letting the ball just come out and putting a lot of conviction behind the ball.”
Catcher Matt Wieters was impressed with the bullpen session Matusz threw on Wednesday.
“Last year it looked like he was just feeling for it all year and couldn’t quite get into a groove where he felt like he was just pitching again,” Wieters said.
“The hard thing when you’re struggling is to be able to just try and forget about everything and just go out there and throw it like you know how to throw. … It looked like he was feeling free, no worry or anything going on. That’s the biggest thing, especially this early in camp where you’re healthy and feeling like you can really let it go. That how you can start to work on everything you need to work on.”
Showalter likes what he’s seen, too, but stressed it’s just a start.
“I thought he had a really good first day throwing here,” the manager said. “He’s in a good place mentally and physically. Those are two things that you like to start out with. I’m excited to see him pitch here and hopefully be a part of our staff.”
Showalter and Wieters both believe Matusz will be driven this spring by the competition for jobs, as well as the pitcher’s desire to put the disappointment of 2011 behind.
The manager has mixed emotions about the latter.
“One thing I like about the position we’re in with a lot of our young pitchers is they’ve gone through the criteria that they’re all eventually going to go through. Some of it is good, and some of it is bad,” Showalter said. “I want him to move forward and put it behind him, but I also want him remember some of it.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)