It had been nearly 18 months since Brian Matusz pitched a game with the precision of the one he threw against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday night.
During Matusz’s dubious losing streak – the longest in the major leagues – the Orioles left-hander has shown flashes of revival, but those games never ended with a complete package of optimism. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has waxed about Matusz’s marked improvement in 2012, but the results haven’t been there.
But on Thursday night, against a lineup known to feast on left-handed pitching, Matusz recorded his first quality start since the final week of the 2010 season and the Orioles hit a pair of pivotal eighth-inning homers as they completed a three-game sweep of the Blue Jays with a 5-2 win at Camden Yards in front of an announced 13,725.
"He pitches like that, he's going to get all the wins he wants,” Showalter said of Matusz.
“He's throwing the ball great in his work days and he's got a good frame of mind, and we all know how close he was to having some good outings,” Showalter added. “There wasn't a lot of firm contact. This is a club that's playing as good as anybody in the American League coming into this series."
With the win, the Orioles (12-7) are five games over .500 for the first time since their 6-1 start to last season. They not only completed their first three-game sweep of Toronto since Sept. 13-15, 2010, but also kept a share of the AL East lead with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Center fielder Adam Jones hit his sixth home run of the season, opening the eighth inning of a tie game by rocketing a first-pitch slider from Casey Janssen into the second row of the left-field stands to put the Orioles up 3-2.
Five of Jones’ six homers this season have tied the game or given the Orioles the lead.
Two batters later, after Matt Wieters’ single, Chris Davis smashed a two-run homer off left-hander Darren Oliver to straight-away center field on an 0-2 pitch to give the Orioles a three-run lead.
But the story of the night was Matusz, who entered the night having lost his past 12 decisions dating to last June.
“I just wish we could have gotten him a ‘W,’” Jones said. “But, hey, we won as a team, and he understands that. He went out there and threw six very, very, very good innings. He shouldn't do anything but be proud of himself.”
Matusz should have had his first win of the season against the Jays, a team he has struggled mightily against in his career (0-3, 13.09 ERA heading into Thursday). He allowed two runs (none earned) on four hits over six innings, striking out three and walking two – his first quality start since Oct. 2, 2010. He mixed his pitches well, using his changeup as an out pitch on two of his strikeouts.
“It was effective when I kept it down,” Matusz said of the changeup. “I got some nice ground balls out of it and some nice swings and misses, so it makes things a lot easier when that pitch is working for me. I’m able to mix it up hard and soft.”
Matusz nearly tossed six scoreless innings, but a two-out fielding error on first baseman Nick Johnson in the sixth plated two runs and tied the game.
With runners on first and second, Toronto left fielder Brett Lawrie hit a ball to first that Johnson tried to backhand but misplayed. The ball was originally ruled a triple but was changed to an error.
Johnson, also mired in a club-record 0-for-26 slump to start the season, took blame for the play.
"It's a play that's got to be made,” Johnson said. “Whatever it did, it doesn't matter. It's got to be made."
Matusz gave the Orioles their 11th start of six or more innings this season, and the club improved its record to 10-1 in those games. Over the past four games, Orioles starters allowed just two earned runs in 25 1/3 innings, pitching to a 0.71 ERA.
“I felt good in my last start against the Angels, and I just wasn’t putting it all together,” Matusz said, referring to a five-inning loss in Anaheim, Calif., on Friday in which he allowed four earned runs. “I was able to go out there with a little bit of confidence today. I’ve been working real hard in the weight room and with [pitching coach] Rick Adair [on] being able to get myself into a groove. I was able to do that today and keep the pitch count down and keep the guys in the game all the way through.”
Matuz set the stage for a bullpen that continued to ice opponents in the late innings. Right-hander Darren O’Day (2-0) tossed two hitless innings, striking out three and walking none to earn the win. And right-hander Luis Ayala shut the door in the ninth with closer Jim Johnson still hospitalized with flu symptoms and a bacterial infection.
Ayala earned his first save since Sept. 23, 2008, overcoming a leadoff single by Edwin Encarnacion by inducing a double-play ball from Eric Thames. After Ayala walked Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus grounded out to second to end the game.
With those three shutout innings, the Orioles' bullpen is statistically the best in baseball, pitching to a 1.96 ERA (13 earned runs in 59 2/3 innings).
“When camp broke, a lot of people were saying that the bullpen wasn’t constructed very well,” O’Day said. “I think, as it turns out, it gives Buck a lot of late-inning options, so he’s not hesitant to bring in pretty much anybody out there. It gives us a lot of flexibility, and we can throw quality arms out there every night. We miss [Johnson], but we’re talented from top to bottom. We can’t wait to get him back.”
The Orioles played small ball early. With his team trailing 2-1, Nick Markakis led off the sixth with a double, one of his three hits on the night. He scored after Toronto shortstop Yunel Escobar's throw to first on Jones’ infield single went awry.
Rookie second baseman Ryan Flaherty got his first major league RBI in the fifth, breaking a scoreless tie with a sacrifice fly to left that plated Davis. Davis drew a leadoff walk that inning, moving to second on Mark Reynolds’ single and to third on Nick Johnson’s flyout to right.
Flaherty -- starting at second for Robert Andino, who is on paternity leave -- also tallied his first major league hit, a bunt that was perfectly placed past the pitcher in the seventh inning.
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