BALTIMORE -- Brian Matusz is overqualified for his job.
The Baltimore Orioles' middle reliever has a tidy 2.70 ERA so far in 2013, after pitching to a 1.35 ERA last season in 18 relief appearances. He's held righties to an OPS of .530 this season. And they're the lucky ones: the lanky 6-foot-4-inch lefty has held his own kind to a .329 OPS this season. He's striking out better than a batter per inning, and he's walking just under 1.6 per nine.
In short, the Orioles have, if they want it, an elite bullpen option for many years to come. But that's probably not going to happen. They didn't select Matusz with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft -- right between Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey -- hoping for a pitcher who could come in and get Everth Cabrera for an out in the eighth inning, as Matusz did on Tuesday night.
They wanted a frontline starter. Jim Palmer, for one, believes Matusz's future is there even now, after a number of flameouts as a starter in Baltimore, most recently a first half ERA of 5.42 last season that produced the Matusz-as-reliever experiment in the first place. And thus, the question: has Matusz figured out how to pitch in relief? Or has Matusz figured out how to pitch, period?
"I think I'm just pitching better now," Matusz said Wednesday morning as we chatted in front of his locker, prior to a game against the San Diego Padres. "The ball's coming out of my hand a lot easier. And I have a better feel out there on the mound in general."
Matusz has a wide, easy smile that spreads across his face. The soft-spoken Matusz is ridiculously polite by baseball locker room standards, stopping in the middle of an answer at one point to say "Bless you" to a teammate who sneezed three lockers away. He doesn't seem like he's very worried about his role. And with the array of weapons he has to deploy, it is hard to blame him.
Matusz entered the game Tuesday night for the top of the eighth. Chris Tillman had thrown seven strong, matching the young power arm from the Padres, Andrew Cashner. Matusz came in to face Cabrera, turning the switch-hitter around to hit right-handed.
Generally, a middle reliever in that spot will have two pitches -- three max -- and a batter can prepare accordingly. Instead, here's what Matusz did: he got ahead of Cabrera, 0-1 with a four-seam fastball at 91 on the outside corner at the knees. Then he froze Cabrera with a ridiculous curveball that started on the outer half of the plate, but finished on the inside corner for strike two.
Matusz missed off the plate with an 0-2 fastball at 92, then with a 1-2 fastball at 92, trying to get Cabrera to chase both times. At that point, Matusz broke off a sharp slider at 85 that Cabrera just managed to get a piece of, staying in the at-bat. The Matusz threw his fourth different pitch, a change just below the knees on the outer corner, but too close to take. Cabrera lunged and fouled it back.
Matusz took a long sigh, composed himself, and fired a fastball at 93 at the knees, outer corner. Cabrera couldn't have known what was coming; if he had, it still probably wasn't a pitch he could have hit.
At-bat over. And, incidentally, night over: Orioles' manager Buck Showalter came to get Matusz.
So exactly how does a relief pitcher come out of the bullpen ready to throw four different pitches for strikes?
"Warming up, going into the game, it all depends on the situation," Matusz said. "If it's coming in mid-inning, and I've got to get ready real quick, then it's just out of the stretch, usually fastball/slider, just getting out there to compete.
"But, for example, yesterday, I had a fresh inning. So I had a whole half inning to prepare, so I was able to throw all my pitches warming up to go out there. Last night, it was a pretty quick half-inning. I go, in pace, by how the inning's going. So if we get two outs real quick, then it's like, all right, let's get things going.
"Last night, I'd guess I threw 15, maybe 20 pitches."
And how does Matusz make sure he's ready to deploy four different offerings in such a short time?
"I don't have a set format," Matusz explained. "Like I said, I like to read the inning, and see how the pace of the game is going. But usually it's establish the fastball and slider first, and then mix in some changeups and some curveballs, and end on some fastballs."
So then: did Matusz know he had that curveball ready to confound Cabrera?
"I knew it was in my arsenal for sure," Matusz began, smiling at what he knew I meant, so I followed up:
"Did you know that particular curveball was in there?"
"Um... no!" he replied, laughing. "To be honest, I threw it once in the bullpen warming up, and it wasn't very good. And then, warming up on the mound before the inning, I didn't throw it. So [Orioles catcher Matt] Wieters just called it, and [I] went with it, and it came out pretty well," he said with another laugh.
It is the type of weapon, the kind of repertoire, really, that makes it impossible to see without picturing Matusz fulfilling the destiny the Orioles envisioned for him when they drafted him. Matusz, though he won't come out and say it, clearly wants to start again.
He provided a smiling "No comment" when asked if he'd discussed transitioning back to starter this season. As for whether he'd like to start, a long pause, then: "It's up to Buck."
On an Orioles team with plenty of quality relievers, but a starting pitcher shortage, giving Matusz another chance to prove he's become a quality pitcher, not just a relief pitcher, is going to make sense.
And when I asked Showalter on Tuesday afternoon if Matusz will be in the mix for some starting duty later this year, he responded: "Right now, we're a better club with him where he's at. But who knows what the future brings. He's certainly capable."