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Matusz struggles as Orioles lose first of season

Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz took the mound Monday night for his first start of this young season hoping he could begin to erase the images of his horrible 2011 season. He spoke of pitching with a clean slate, of April optimism and feeling stronger than ever after an offseason dedicated to his conditioning.

One of the spring's biggest stories was whether Matusz could rebound, and in Sarasota, Fla., at least, he did -- earning the No. 4 spot in the Orioles' rotation.

But the Orioles' 3-0 start to the season -- buoyed by a trio of sensational starting pitching performances -- quickly came crashing down to reality in a 6-2 loss to the Yankees at Camden Yards in front of an announced 25,478. And after a promising spring, questions regarding Matusz quickly resurfaced.

Matusz lasted just four innings, throwing 96 pitches, chased from the game after a three-run fourth. It was the 10th consecutive loss for the 25-year-old left-hander, the longest active streak in the majors, dating back 10 months.

"Obviously, I'd like to go deeper in the game and give the team a chance to win," Matusz said. "So I'm not happy at all with today, but I'm on the right track to be where I need to be."

In his past three starts against the Yankees dating to the beginning of the 2011 season, Matusz is 0-3 with a 12.66 ERA (15 earned runs in 10 2/3 innings), but Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said there's no comparison to last season.

"His stuff is leaps and bounds better than last year," Wieters said. "That's the first step. He's just got to get back to pitching."

Matusz appeared as if he were trying to be too perfect in attempting to duplicate the efforts of his rotation predecessors, unsuccessfully nibbling the corners of the plate against one of the most disciplined lineups in baseball.

"I have a lot of confidence in Brian, and he'll get better than [that]," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That probably wouldn't have happened last year. I think that's a tribute to his stuff, and he kept battling. I feel a lot better about that outing than I would have last year. I think you'll see better things from him."

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, one of the most patient hitters in the game, dissected Matusz for three of his four hits on the night, including a two-out, full-count, opposite-field RBI double that capped the scoring in the fourth. Jeter improved his career average against Matusz to .500 (11-for-22).

One of Matusz's strengths in earning a spot in the rotation this spring was his control. He had a 7.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio (22 strikeouts and just three walks) and pitched to a 3.65 ERA in six spring starts.

But his four walks Monday were his most in 10 outings. Under the lights at Camden Yards, Matusz didn't hit enough corners, forcing him to fight from behind in the count all night. His eight three-ball counts (out of 21 batters faced) elevated his pitch count quickly.

"That's a tough lineup, and just trying to be a little bit too fine with a lot of their big hitters rather than trusting my stuff and attacking the zone," Matusz said. "I felt strong throughout the whole game. The training's really paying off. It's just being able to settle in and getting ahead of the count."

As a team, the Orioles issued seven walks.

"[With] the walks, you just can't give that many 90-feet [increments] without earning it," Showalter said. "If we were really able to minimize that, I think we would have been a little more than just in that game.

"It wasn't just Brian," he added.

The Orioles' offense, unable to capitalize on scoring opportunities, didn't do its part either, stranding eight base runners. The Orioles were 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position.

Wieters, who tied a career high with four hits on the night, was one of the only bright spots in the Orioles' lineup. He put them on the board in the second inning, taking changeup from Ivan Nova over the out-of-town scoreboard in right field and onto the flag court.

First baseman Chris Davis had two hits, including a run-scoring double in the seventh inning that provided the Orioles' only other run. Mark Reynolds and Robert Andino also had two hits each.

Matusz survived a 30-pitch first inning, allowing just one run -- Severna Park native Mark Teixeira's run-scoring single -- and stranding runners at first and third.

It wasn't until the fourth inning when the Yankees pounced, challenging Matusz to throw strikes. Matusz issued three of his four walks in that frame and went to three-ball counts two other times.

He issued back-to-back one-out walks to Curtis Granderson and Andruw Jones, setting the stage for Russell Martin's single to right, scoring Granderson and placing Jones on third after a fielding error by left fielder Nolan Reimold.

After a sacrifice fly by Eduardo Nunez scored Jones, Matusz fell behind Jeter 3-0, worked the count full, then saw Jeter drive in the third run of the inning.

"Brian, stuffwise, was pretty crisp," Showalter said. "I was hoping he'd fall back in line once we got the home run. We were still in the ballgame when he left. There were some situations where he could have let it get away from him where we would have been completely out of it."

Jones crushed reliever Darren O'Day's first delivery of the sixth inning, placing it in the left-field stands for a solo homer. The Yankees went up 6-1 on Brett Gardner's RBI single to center in the seventh off left-hander Troy Patton.

Orioles reliever Kevin Gregg, making his first appearance of the season, threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings of relief but needed a double-play ball from Alex Rodriguez to get out of the eighth unscathed.

After the game, Martin and Andino exchanged words on the field. Martin told New York reporters that he accused Andino, who was stranded on second after hitting his second double of the night in the ninth, of stealing signs.

eencina@baltsun.com

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