ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Orioles needed a starting pitching performance to remember Saturday night. They needed something to restore faith in their rotation, something to help stop their sudden swoon.
Brian Matusz was up for the challenge. The 25-year-old left-hander turned in his best performance of the season Saturday at Tropicana Field, throwing a season-high 7 1/3 innings of two-hit ball in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay, lifting the Orioles back into a first-place tie with the Rays atop the American League East.
“He was the difference in that ballgame,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “You get that four-pitch mix working, you can have some fun.”
Less than 24 hours after the Orioles were dropped into second place with a sixth straight loss, Matusz had a certain swagger on the mound against the Rays. He located his fastball while having the moxie to throw his slider and curveball for strikes both early and late in the count, and he later found his change up in key spots.
The Orioles (30-23) won just their third game in their last 11 and won their first game on this key nine-game road trip against AL East opponents at the midway point of the trip.
"Any time I step on the mound, I want to go out there and compete and bring my best game,” Matusz said. “But to end the losing streak is definitely a good feeling. It was nice to be able to go out there and end it and get back on the winning side of things.
“It's as good as I've felt in a while,” Matusz added. “I like pitching here in the Trop. You expect it to be 72 degrees every time you go out there to pitch, so it's nice. I had a great feel.”
Orioles starters pitched to an 8.06 ERA during the team's six-game losing streak. But Matusz, who turned in his fourth consecutive quality start, is now 4-1 with a 2.87 ERA in his last five starts. His outing Saturday was his longest in nearly 22 months, when he threw eight innings against the Rangers on Aug. 19, 2010.
“He's gained a lot of confidence in his preparation, which I think is obviously carrying over to competition, and he's in a good place mentally,” Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair said. “He's very intense, but there's some calmness to what he's doing, and it's good to see.”
Matusz held Tampa Bay hitless for the first four innings, allowing just one batter to reach base — Ben Zobrist on a walk — in that span. He also continued his domination of left-handed hitters, who are batting 4-for-47 against him since May 1.
Matusz was confident with his breaking pitches, specifically his backdoor slider to right-hander hitters. Out of his 97 pitches, Matusz threw his slider 29 times, including 22 times strikes. Rays hitters swung at his slider 19 times and missed 10 times for a 52.6 swing-and-miss percentage (compare to 29 percent on the season).
"I feel real good with my slider right now,” Matusz said. “I have a great feel. I'm just letting it rip, really. Just letting it go and attacking the zone with it. It's got great bite, so I'll hang with it."
That allowed Matusz (5-5) to keep his pitch count low and work deep into the game, something the Orioles needed since the team's offense is still struggling, having scored just 16 total runs in the last seven games.
The Orioles managed just five hits Saturday, but they got some help from a costly Tampa Bay throwing error that led to the game-winning run.
Mark Reynolds doubled with one out in the top of the seventh, and Ryan Flaherty reached on a catcher's interference. Robert Andino then hit a chopper to third that Drew Sutton threw wide of first base. That allowed Reynolds to score to make it 2-1. Flaherty was thrown out at home to end the inning.
Left fielder Endy Chavez, who entered hitting just .121 in 23 games, hit his first home run of the season in the third, a solo shot off Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson to give the Orioles a 1-0 lead. The home run was Chavez's first since last Aug. 9, 2011.
"Endy's track record is way too good for him not to reach another level for us,” Showalter said. “I know the dugout lit up, because they know how much he wants to contribute, having been hurt and everything he's capable of. You pull for guys like him. He'll get it going for us. That's certainly a need we have, because we don't really have anybody right now who fits that situation."
Before the homer, Chavez has just three hits in his last 37 at bats.
“Right now I'm working with my hitting and trying to be more consistent hitting the ball hard,” Chavez said. “Today was a good start. I could drive the ball to right field and hit a homer to put us in a good spot.”
Sean Rodriguez's double to lead off the fifth was the Rays' first hit off Matusz, and two batters later Rodriguez scored on a ground ball to second against a drawn-in infield. Andino scooped the ball and threw home but Rodriguez just avoided the sweep tag of catcher Matt Wieters.
That was the only time a Tampa Bay baserunner reached second until the eighth, when Matusz was chased from the game with two on and one out.
Strop walked the first batter he faced to load the bases, but he induced a first-pitch 4-6-3 double-play ball from Zobrist to end the threat.
Orioles closer Jim Johnson, who hadn't had a save opportunity since May 22, converted his 17th save of the season and his 25th straight dating back to last season.