Matusz trying to make comeback via independent league

Brian Matusz can’t really explain it. The former Orioles first-round draft pick needed some time away from baseball and couldn’t get back into it. Couldn’t find a team willing to take a chance on a 32-year-old left-hander with starting and bullpen experience who had some success in the majors.

Left-handed and breathing usually gets you a phone call.

Matusz decided that he wanted it to ring and was met with the sounds of silence.

Matusz-Delivers-White-Sidebar.jpgSo where is he now? A Yankees writer posed the question to me earlier this week and I told him that Matusz hadn’t pitched since 2017. The internet proved me wrong, of course, after I did a quick check and discovered that he signed with the independent Long Island Ducks on Aug. 2 and made a start two days later.

A start that followed one game with Monclova in the Mexican League back in July.

From no teams to two teams. Both a long way from the majors, but at least giving him a chance to pitch again.

Matusz made one start for the Cubs on July 31, 2016 in a nationally televised Sunday night game - others pushed back to accommodate him - and he allowed six runs, including three homers, in three innings. He was gone the next day but owns a World Series ring.

Next came a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks in February 2017 and his release three months later. He never made it back to the majors, appearing in 11 games with Triple-A Reno and compiling a 6.11 ERA and 1.755 WHIP in 17 2/3 innings.

The 2018 season rolled around and left Matusz in the dust.

Or did he leave it?

“Just took a break from the game,” he said over the phone this week after his bullpen session that leads into Friday night’s start with the Ducks in Lancaster, Pa. “There was no real reason. Just took some time off.

“Got to a point where I was getting that itch to play again. Fortunately got a phone call from the GM for a team in Mexico and had that opportunity to go down there, and basically, they created a spring training-type environment for me at their academy.”

In his only game south of the border, Matusz allowed five runs in three innings and basically accomplished his primary goal of getting noticed. Of being remembered.

“I was able to build to be a starter and made a start there,” he said, “which led to an opportunity to play in Long Island for the Ducks and just making the most of it.”

Matusz worked four innings in his Atlantic League debut and was charged with one earned run and three hits.

“I feel good,” he said. “The natural instincts for the game are still there, and the instinct to compete. Getting back into it, building strength and stamina, that’s slowly coming. But being out there on the mound and the instincts and the natural feel of pitching is still there.”

Which leads me back to wondering why he left baseball.

“It just kind of happened,” he said. “I don’t know. Just needed a break. Took a break. For the longest time I was thinking about coming back. It just never took place until recently here.

“The love for the game never went away. Just took a break.”

The Orioles made Matusz the fourth overall selection in the 2008 draft out of the University of San Diego, converted him to relief as his struggles began to mount and transformed him, for a while, into an effective situational lefty. At times dominant. He owned David Ortiz and fans loved it.

Matusz struck out the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, his only batter, to strand a runner in the eighth inning of the 2012 wild card game in Arlington, Texas. He allowed only one run and two hits and struck out five batters in 4 1/3 innings in the Division Series against the Yankees, though Raúl Ibañez tagged him for a walk-off homer in the 12th inning of Game 3.

“I enjoyed playing with him,” said teammate Lew Ford, now a player-coach with Long Island. “I was excited to see him come to the team because I knew he could help us, too. My memories were more of what he did for us in the playoffs, and I just remember him pretty much being lights-out. I think he pitched in every game. He kept us in every game and pitched great and pretty much was blowing guys away.

“That’s what I told him, ‘I remember you blowing guys away out of the ‘pen in the playoffs, and that was big.’ A big stage and he stepped up big for us that year. Now he’s starting again for us here and we’re going to see how that goes. He pitched well his first game. Kind of working his way back up and seeing what happens now. He wanted to try to start again, and that’s why he’s here.”

Matusz registered a 2.94 ERA and 1.184 WHIP in 58 appearances in 2015 but allowed eight runs and 11 hits with seven walks in six innings the following season, and the Orioles traded him to the Braves, along with a competitive balance Round B pick, for minor league pitchers Brandon Barker and Trevor Belicek.

An Orioles career that included a 27-41 record and 4.81 ERA in 279 games over parts of eight seasons was history.

Barker is pitching in the independent Canadian-American Association. Belicek hasn’t pitched in two years.

The Braves released Matusz a week later. They wanted the pick in a trade that was set up for it.

He signed with the Cubs, made the one start and was designated for assignment the next day because he no longer held a minor league option.

Matusz’s agent couldn’t land him another job after the Diamondbacks cut him loose. He checked with the Orioles and they passed on a reunion, though the idea was discussed.

Asked whether he knew of any interest during that period, Matusz said, “To be honest, no, none at all. There was really no interest.

“From the time that I was essentially released from the Diamondbacks in 2017 there was really no interest up until recently, when the GM from Monclova reached out.”

But why? Had scouts and executives soured on him that much? Were there concerns about his health, his durability, or something else? Was it only performance-based?

“No idea, to be honest,” he said. “Not sure how that works or why it works that way. Just nothing really presented itself.”

“It does seem strange,” Ford said, “but this league here that I’m in now, that’s where Baltimore signed me out of, too. We get a lot of guys like that. You wonder how a team isn’t signing this guy. I think we’ve had 12 sign off our team this year, two affiliated and almost all of them pitchers. That’s what’s strange.

“Early on in the season guys came here, pitched well and teams signed them, but they didn’t even have invites to spring training. I don’t know why it is, but there are guys out there like Brian and some other guys that we have here this year. Maybe it’s just a numbers thing. I don’t know. But they can still pitch and as long as they’re pitching and teams can see them, because they have teams come and watch the games and see guys healthy and throwing the ball well, I think that’s kind of the process sometimes for some guys to get back.”

Starting has always been Matusz’s preference, but manager Buck Showalter and others convinced him that the road back to the majors began in the bullpen. A pitching makeover that worked for a while.

A 2011 season when he missed the first two months with an intercostal injury and went 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA and 2.114 WHIP in 12 starts set the wheels in motion, and they really gained traction by 2013 with all 65 appearances in relief.

“It’s great starting again,” he said. “I had that period in 2016 with the Cubs where I made a few starts in Triple-A, and the one in the big leagues, and then went back to the bullpen with the Diamondbacks. It feels good to be able to start again and be stretched out, throwing every five days.”

The fastball sounds about the same, from when it averaged 89-91 mph in affiliated baseball.

“To be honest, last game they didn’t have a radar gun. From what I knew with Monclova it was right around 90 mph,” he said.

“For me, I never really focus too much on the velocity as much as how the ball’s coming out and the velocity on it. And it feels like there’s still good life on the fastball.”

The Ducks are providing their own reunion for Matusz. His teammates include pitcher Pedro Beato.

“A couple familiar faces from Baltimore on the team here,” he said.

From the best days of his professional life.

Matusz is only 32, and after some setbacks with his health, he says he’s 100 percent, physically. He still loves the game and images remain fresh in his mind of the raucous on-field and clubhouse celebrations after the Orioles won the wild card game in 2012 and the American League East in 2014. He can still taste and feel the ice-cold champagne and beer dripping down his face and stinging his eyes.

He wants another shot, insisting that he has more to offer.

“Yeah, no doubt,” he said. “Still feel like the arm has some life to it, and the desire to play and work hard is there. Overall, it’s a good feeling to be wanted again.”

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