The Orioles' 10-0 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday night was all but officially over by the sixth inning, but what lingered afterward was the continuing concern about left-handed reliever Brian Matusz's early season struggles.
Matusz -- who hadn't pitched since tossing a scoreless ninth inning in last Wednesday's win in Minnesota -- entered for starter Ubaldo Jimenez in the fifth inning to face the predominantly left-handed Mariners lineup. But Matusz allowed two inherited runners to score and was charged with four more runs of his own in an ugly 1 2/3-inning outing.
"It's not a good feeling," Matusz said after Tuesday's game. "Obviously. I have been there before, had struggles and fortunately in the past have been able to get through that. And I'm kind of in the situation where that's what I'm gonna have to do now.
"To be pretty much the lone lefty in the bullpen right now, obviously with Zach Britton, but he's being our closer. I have that job to get left-handed hitters out and to be able to join this bullpen, obviously a really good bullpen, a good group of guys, and to be able to get in that mix and do that. That's all I can do, is keep trucking."
Matusz now owns an unsightly 12.00 ERA in six innings this season. And while that statistic alone says enough, what might be even more telling about Matusz's struggles is how he's failed to retire left-handed hitters, a job that had previously been his bread-and-butter as the team's situational lefty reliever.
"Yeah, that's predominantly been my role to come in and [face lefties]," Matusz said. "A series like this, you kind of have an idea that there's gonna be that opportunity and to come in that situation right there, to bail Ubaldo out and not getting the job done, there's nothing any more frustrating than that. It's just pitch execution. Being able to get that ball down in the zone and find that rhythm."
On Tuesday, five of the seven left-handed hitters Matusz faced reached base including his first batter, Kyle Seager, on a three-run homer on an elevated 0-2 fastball.
"Yeah, it's tough. It's frustrating, especially the situation there with Seager. With Ubaldo's runners on base, you want to get the job done," Matusz said. "I think all of us in the bullpen, we take pride in being able to get a job done and so far this year, I haven't been able to do it. It's frustrating and things can only get better from here."
Former Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz, a right-handed hitter, added a two-run homer against Matusz on a 1-2 changeup that was intended down and away but was up in the zone.
"Just his command has been a challenge for him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's been doing some things to get some counts but he can't make that last pitch. He's not getting much early weak contact either so he's having to get deep in all counts."
From 2013 to 2015, Matusz's first three seasons as a full-time reliever, he held left-handed hitters to a .193 batting average. Lefties hit only .186 against Matusz last season.
This season, Matusz has seen a dramatic decline against left-handers. Including Tuesday's game, 10 of the 16 left-handed hitters Matusz has faced have reached base. Left-handers have a .625 on-base percentage against him.
Matusz allowed four hits to lefties Tuesday, including Seager's three-run blast in the fifth and Robinson Cano's RBI double in the sixth. And entering Tuesday's game, Matusz had walked four of the nine left-handers he had faced.
After issuing another walk Tuesday, Matusz has issued more walks (five) against left-handed batters in 16 plate appearances than he did all of last year (four) in 108 plate appearances.
Matusz, who opened the season on the disabled list with a lower back strain, hasn't shown any signs of being hurt since his return on April 23. Matusz also had offseason surgery on his nonthrowing shoulder, something he pitched through at the end of last year. Following Tuesday's game, Matusz said he feels healthy.
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"I feel fine," Matusz said. "I just don't feel like I've found a rhythm yet. I haven't found that groove. It's something I've just got to keep working on, keep throwing, getting stronger and keep going from there."
"[I'm] as convinced as what he tells me and everybody else tells me and all the rehab [he did]," Showalter said when asked about Matusz's health. "He's had a lot of innings. I think that's his seventh or eighth outing. We've tried stretching him out and we've tried short. We'll continue to try. I know it's frustrating for him."
Matusz's continued struggles put the Orioles in a difficult position. He is out of minor league options, so the Orioles can't send him down to work through his struggles without him clearing waivers and accepting an outright minor league assignment. Matusz is also making $3.9 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, so another team isn't likely to claim him because they'd have to take on the rest of his existing salary, which is approximately $3 million.
However, if he does clear waivers and is released or refuses an assignment to the minors, another team could sign Matusz for a prorated portion of the league minimum of $507,500. The Orioles would still be responsible for the difference.
Letting Matusz go would be an expensive move, and right now, that only leaves the Orioles continuing to look for answers.
"It's been frustrating for him and us because we know what he's been capable of in the past and we've done a lot of things," Showalter said. "I think he'd thrown 42 pitches and taking him to as much as 50 I thought it might be really good for him. A lot of things we did in spring early on and in the past and did it again this year -- just did it on rehab -- and Brian just hasn't found his step yet. The job that we're going to need him to do what he's capable of doing, and he has in the past, just hasn't happened for him."