OAKLAND, Calif.—In the days leading up to Brian Matusz's return to the big leagues, Orioles manager Buck Showalter was asked several times about what he was looking to see from the 24-year-old left-hander.
His answer didn't include mention of the stadium radar gun, mechanics or even command.
Oakland Athletics hitters took some healthy swings off Matusz, though there were small signs of progress from the Orioles pitcher despite an 8-4 loss in front of an announced 12,325 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
"I saw a lot of positives," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. "I thought he was probably a few good changeups away from no runs given up in that game instead of what happened. His fastball had good life, and his breaking stuff was back to being sharp. There are still a lot of positives that he could take out of that game."
In his first big league start since June 30, Matusz persevered through a rocky second inning to pitch all the way in the seventh before he seemingly ran out of gas and was let down by the Orioles' bullpen.
Matusz allowed six earned runs on eight hits and three walks while striking out five over 6 2/3 innings. Three of those runs came in the second inning, when five of the first six A's hitters reached base. Two more came in the seventh, when Matusz allowed consecutive two-out singles and was relieved by Troy Patton, who allowed a two-run double to Coco Crisp.
"I thought he deserved a lot better than what the line may read," Showalter said. "You look at some of the hits that fell in on him. I thought he held his stuff well, too. He looked pretty strong physically, which was good to see. He just seemed strong mentally and physically tonight. That was fun to watch. If he pitches more like that, he'll come out ahead in a lot of those games."
Crisp's hit off Patton, followed by Hideki Matsui's RBI single off the glove of first baseman Mark Reynolds, turned a one-run game into a commanding 7-3 Oakland lead. The Orioles (47-73) managed just three runs (two earned) over six innings against A's right-hander Guillermo Moscoso and didn't score after Josh Bell's RBI single in the fifth. Bell drove in the Orioles' first run with an RBI groundout in the third, and Vladimir Guerrero and Robert Andino also had RBIs.
But it was not enough as the Orioles failed to win their third straight game for the first time since they won four in a row June 6-10. They still have a chance to win their first series since taking two of three games from the Cincinnati Reds on June 24-26.
They haven't won a series here since they took two out of three from the A's on July 20-22, 2007, and they haven't won a road series anywhere since capturing a three-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on May 13-15.
Matusz (1-5) lost his fourth consecutive big league decision and allowed six earned runs or more for his third consecutive Orioles start. But after spending more than six weeks at Triple-A Norfolk, where he went 2-3 with a 3.46 ERA in nine starts and pitched a complete-game shutout in his final start, Matusz looked a little better than he did earlier this season.
"I've made a lot of strides, had a good feel for all my pitches today, just being able to locate a little bit better," Matusz said. "You got to build off every outing. It's definitely exciting coming back, the first outing out here in a while, lot of nerves coming out from the get-go. But, [I'm] pretty happy about being able to go deep."
Matusz's velocity was up a tiny bit as he pitched consistently with a fastball that hovered between 88 and 90 mph. He threw some sharp curveballs and tied a season high with five strikeouts.
Perhaps the biggest positive was that he was able to pitch into the seventh inning for the first time in a big league game this season and threw 109 pitches, 19 more than he had tossed in any game this season.
"I felt like he had a good look in his eye from the first pitch," Showalter said. "He just looked more like Brian today and yesterday. We'll see if it continues. Every outing is a proving ground. He's had a good look in his eye. I hope it continues."
Still, Matusz showed at times that he still has a long way to go to get back to where he was last year, when he went 10-12 with a 4.30 ERA in his first full big league season. While the A's scored two of their three runs in the second inning on bloop hits by Cliff Pennington and rookie Jemile Weeks, Matusz also gave up a well-struck RBI double to Scott Sizemore and would have allowed a fourth run in the frame had center fielder Adam Jones not made a great throw to nail Pennington, who had tagged up and tried to score.
Matusz also walked three of the first eight hitters he faced, prompting him to say later, "The walks killed me tonight."
His location was much improved for the most part, but he did hang a changeup that Josh Willingham bashed deep into the left-field seats in the third inning for his 20th home run of the season. But Matusz retired 11 of the next 13 hitters he faced.
"I take all the positives," Matusz said. "Being able to go deep, obviously, I got two outs in the seventh inning there. The one thing that killed me today was getting behind at times, [but] I take the positives. I was able to have a good feel. I felt confident out there, and [I'll] keep working."