The Orioles finally got back in the win column, riding Brian Matusz's tremendous outing to a 2-1 victory that snapped their six-game losing streak. Matusz pitched into the eighth inning for the first time this year, twirling a two-hit masterpiece to give a much-needed shot in the arm to a struggling pitching staff and a slumping team.
After the season Matusz had last year, who'd have thought that he'd suddenly be a stabilizing force in the Orioles' rotation come 2012? Though he's had his share of hiccups, Matusz has pitched consistently well in seven of his last eight outings, while all of his rotation mates have stumbled recently. His quality start tonight was the first by an O's pitcher since...Matusz himself, in his previous outing. Actually, calling today's performance a "quality" start would be selling it short. Matusz was flat-out nasty, making the Rays lineup look like chumps.
Matusz set the tone for the afternoon when he struck out leadoff man Carlos Pena, throwing three fastballs before getting him to bite on a filthy slider. Brian's slider was perhaps the sharpest it's been all season, and he mixed it effectively with his heater to keep hitters guessing. A four-pitch walk to Ben Zobrist was Matusz's only misstep in the first four innings; he retired the other 12 batters he faced in that span, including four strikeouts.
The Orioles got some offense from a most unlikely source in the fourth when Endy Chavez lined a homerun into the right-field seats off Jeremy Hellickson. Wait, Endy Chavez? Really?? The guy who, for the entirety of his O's career until now, has looked about as good at hitting as me? This was, I believe, the first time Chavez has hit a ball solidly all season. But hey, unexpected contributions are the definition of Birdland! Good job, Endy! He became the 14th different Oriole to homer this season. And all 53 Orioles games this season have featured at least one homerun, either by the O's or their opponents. That's...notable, I think?
Matusz carried a no-hitter into the fifth, but Sean Rodriguez put an end to that with a first-pitch double to left. Moments later, Matusz lost the shutout as well. After Rodriguez moved to third on a groundout, he came sprinting toward the plate on a Drew Sutton grounder to second. Robert Andino made a strong throw home that beat the runner, but Rodriguez pulled off a fancy fadeaway slide to elude Matt Wieters and score the tying run. Wieters didn't seem to be blocking the plate as fully as he normally does. Perhaps he had unpleasant memories of what happened the last time Sean Rodriguez barreled toward him.
With the game now tied, the Orioles were frustratingly unable to generate much offense against Hellickson, despite stinging the ball on several occasions. The right fielder Zobrist made two consecutive nifty plays, hauling down a Wilson Betemit drive at the wall to end the fourth, then robbing Ryan Flaherty of a single with a diving catch to open the fifth. A couple of sharp line drives by O's batters went directly to infielders. Seriously, Jeremy Hellickson must've given a heck of an offering to the BABIP gods to continually pitch well despite hard-hit balls.
The Rays' defense abandoned them in the seventh, though. With one out, Mark Reynolds came a few inches shy of a go-ahead homer, settling for a double off the top of the left-field wall. Then with two down, the O's caught a break when Flaherty's swing clipped the glove of the catcher whose name sounds like a Transformer, Jose Lobaton. Flaherty was awarded first base on catcher's interference, and Hellickson was removed from the game with two down.
Lefty Jake McGee got Robert Andino to tap a soft grounder to third that should've been the final out. Sutton charged to field it but then uncorked a wild throw that skipped past first base and bounced into foul territory. Reynolds hustled home with the go-ahead run, but the O's got too aggressive and Flaherty was thrown out trying to score as well. That was sort of an ugly play on both sides, but the moral of the story is that the Orioles had reclaimed a 2-1 lead.
Matusz made it stick. After working a scoreless sixth inning by walking and then picking off B.J. Upton, Brian mowed through a perfect seventh on just eight pitches, capped by a Sutton strikeout. With his pitch count at just 85, Matusz began the eighth inning for the first time in 2012. (And, without looking it up, I think I can say confidently that he didn't pitch into the eighth inning any time in 2011, either.)
He got a quick first out on a grounder to short, but the Orioles' porous defense did Matusz no favors when the first baseman Reynolds couldn't field an Elliot Johnson hot shot, putting a runner on. Matusz then got ahead of Pena 0-2 in the count but couldn't put him away, throwing four consecutive balls (the last of which was a curveball in the dirt) to put him aboard.
With Matusz potentially losing his command and the right-handed Upton up next, Buck Showalter removed him from the game. Though he couldn't finish the eighth, it was certainly Brian's most impressive outing of the year, striking out seven in 7 ⅓ two-hit innings. He then had to sweat out the rest of the game in the dugout.
Pedro Strop threatened to make a disaster of things, walking Upton (after uncorking a wild pitch) that loaded the bases with one out. The Birds were in hot water, with the potential tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with just one out. But the Orioles got just what the doctor ordered, with Zobrist grounding Strop's first pitch straight to second base. Andino's feed to J.J. Hardy was a little short, but J.J. did a great job to haul it in, keep his foot on the bag, and relay to first for the inning-ending, rally-snuffing double play. Matusz, and Orioles fans everywhere, breathed a sigh of relief as the lead was still intact.
Closer Jim Johnson made things much less stressful in the ninth. In his first save opportunity since May 22, Johnson retired all three batters he faced, throwing eight pitches to end the game. And the slide is over! The Birds notched their 30th win and moved back into a tie for first place.