CLEARWATER, FLA. — — There's little debate to the notion that Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz has pitched well this spring training -- especially considering he's coming off an awful 2011 season -- but whether he's dazzled the team brass enough to earn a starting rotation spot remains to be seen.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has made it clear that this year, rotation spots will be earned, not given away. He has said all spring that Matusz will be evaluated on his entire body of work, with his dazzling moments as equal as his stumbles.
On Sunday afternoon against Philadelphia at Bright House Field, it was again a little of both as he battled Phillies ace Roy Halladay for the second straight start. At times, Matusz was undoubtedly in control but other times teetered on the edge of allowing a big inning.
The end result of the Orioles' 3-3, 10-inning tie with the Phillies might have left more questions than answers. Matusz likely could have cemented a rotation spot with his best effort, but instead he left the door to Triple-A Norfolk still open.
As of now, it appears that Jake Arrieta, Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel have earned spots in the rotation. Tommy Hunter, who battled lower back problems, should also be there if he's healthy, leaving one spot for either Matusz or Tsuyoshi Wada. Chris Tillman and Dana Eveland still conceivably remain in the mix.
On Sunday, Matusz retired six of the first seven hitters he faced, but in the third inning he allowed singles to No. 8 hitter Freddy Galvis, leadoff man Jimmy Rollins and No. 2 hitter Placido Polanco, the latter of which scored the Phillies' first run. Jim Thome then lauched a line drive over Xavier Avery's head in center for a two-run double.
"They got a couple guys on base, and Thome got up there and he's the type of hitter in that lineup who will hurt you, and he did," Matusz said. "I got a little erratic but just battled my way through. I was not as sharp today. Just some things I'm working on a little bit, wasn't all there, but I was able to just battle and keep going."
Those three runs would be the only ones Matusz would allow, but that 27-pitch third inning was followed by a 21-pitch fourth, and Matusz would be out of the game before the end of the fifth. On the afternoon, he allowed eight base runners -- six hits, one walk and one hit batter -- and struck out two.
"I thought he gave us a chance to win," Showalter said. "You can't always go out there perfect. He's been pretty good this spring. And that's something he wasn't able to do last year, was keep us in a ballgame when he wasn't carrying all his bullets. That's very normal this time of year. In fact, we talked about it coming over here. He was warming up. I kind of like today as much as I've liked the other ones in a lot of ways."
Matusz has had better starts this spring, including his first of three starts against the Phillies here at Bright House Field on March 10. He threw four shutout innings, allowing just three hits and four strikeouts. That outing was followed by another impressive one on the road against the Detroit Tigers five days later, when he allowed just two hits in four shutout innings with a spring-high six strikeouts and no walks.
But as the Orioles continue to raise Matusz's pitch count, this was his second straight wobbly outing. On Tuesday, he allowed seven hits over five innings. He only allowed one run but was helped by three double-play ground balls.
Matusz said he never truly felt comfortable Sunday and was leaving his pitches up. Six of his 14 outs were flyouts, some with lift that were slowed by the ballpark's crosswinds.
"I was rushing a little bit," he said. "Rushing my delivery, I wasn't able to settle in with something that felt good. I felt like I was battling all game. I just kept battling, kept attacking the zone."
Like Showalter, Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair said Matusz's struggles were expected for this point in spring training.
"You look at Halladay, and he was up in the zone, too," Adair said. "You get to the point when you get to 15 to 20 innings where guys' arms hurt and they're dragging a bit into their 35th, 36th day of spring training. It was great to see him work through that."
Regardless, Matusz has a 3.20 ERA this spring in 192/3 innings. He's allowed just four earned runs in his past four outings. His pitch count Sunday was 83, which puts him close to being stretched out well for the regular season. He has a 9.0 strikeout-walk ratio.
"I'm definitely progressing," Matusz said. "Through the course of the season there's always going to be mechanical things that come off a little bit. So it's just a battle and a grind to keep those things tight. And I've definitely got some things to work on this week."
But on whether Matusz has locked up a spot in the rotation, Showalter isn't biting.
Neither is Matusz.
"That's out of my control," he said after Sunday's start. "You ask me that every time. My job is to go out there and pitch every five days and let the coaches do their part."