BALTIMORE - The Orioles' strength all season has been their bullpen, but Brian Matusz was late to the party.
Matusz left Baltimore July 1 after a shaky start, his fifth consecutive loss, and headed off to Class AAA Norfolk. Dan Duquette, the team's executive vice president of operations, told reporters after that game that Matusz needed only to make a few adjustments to become a successful pitcher and return to the big leagues.
When the 25-year-old came back, his role changed from starter to relief pitcher. And Matusz has thrived ever since.
The left-hander, who was 5-10 with a 5.42 ERA in 16 starts, was 1-0 with a 1.34 ERA in 18 relief appearances down the stretch.
Baltimore went 14-4 when Matusz came in from the bullpen. He held opposing hitters to a .114 batting average, and totaled 19 strikeouts compared to three walks.
The Orioles drafted Matusz with the fourth pick in 2008 and tabbed him as one of the organization's future stars in the rotation. He's 21-33 as a starter for Baltimore, but has found a place for now in a rather talented bullpen.
The Orioles used him in the wild-card game last Friday against Texas to face Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton with two outs in the eighth inning. Hamilton represented the tying run with Baltimore up 3-1, but Matusz fired three fastballs past him to end the frame.
Matusz had a pair of strikeouts Sunday in Game 1 of the AL Division Series against New York, then came back Monday in Game 2 to toss 1 1-3 scoreless innings with two more strikeouts in Baltimore's 3-2 victory.
"Right now I consider myself a reliever," Matusz said. "That's what my role and my job is to do. We're just rolling with it and having fun with it right now."
Matusz is one of manager Buck Showalter's dependable relief arms, a situational lefty many times used to get to closer Jim Johnson in pressure situations. But his background as a starter also gives Showalter the option to send Matusz back out for another inning if need be.
Matusz said he doesn't consider himself a different pitcher despite a new role on the club.
"I take each game, game by game, each hitter, hitter by hitter. It even goes as far as pitch by pitch," Matusz said. "It's nice to be able to have good outings, and back them up with another good outing. My focus is on the next game."
Matusz praised Orioles catcher Matt Wieters for his ability to work with the entire staff and has confidence in whatever pitches the All-Star calls. In turn, Wieters said it's Matusz's focus that has taken him to this point.
"He comes out with the right mindset," Wieters said. "He comes out there ready to go, sort of laying everything on the line for one inning."
Matusz hasn't allowed an earned run since Sept. 7, and he's part of the reason Baltimore is 75-0 when leading after seven innings, and 30-9 in one-run games.
With guys such as Darren O'Day, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton and Matusz ready when called upon, getting to Johnson with a lead hasn't been all that challenging this season.
"I think the fact that we've been so good in close games and in extra innings, and the fact that our bullpen has been so strong down the stretch, really bodes well for us," said Orioles right fielder Chris Davis.
Whether he returns to the rotation next year remains to be seen. Matusz seems to be content with his current role, and he's enjoying the Orioles' first playoff berth in 15 years.
"I have fun just pitching, regardless if it's starting or coming out of the bullpen," he said. "Right now, being in the playoffs, coming out with a big win here, it doesn't get much more fun than that."