The Orioles opened up the Grapefruit League season yesterday playing a split squad double header. A team comprised mainly of minor leaguers and players hoping to latch on in reserve roles traveled to face the Rays in the afternoon game. The night game saw the O’s regulars take the field in Sarasota against the Pirates for the O’s Spring Training home opener. The night cap was broadcast on MASN, the first of six spring training games that will be shown on the network. I caught most of the night game on television. It probably goes without saying, but it isn’t wise to read too much either way (positive or negative) into Spring Training games, especially games this early on. There are just so many variables effecting Spring Training games that you generally don’t see during the regular season. This includes players not yet being in mid-season condition, guys tinkering with various parts of their game, lineups shuffled around, and pitchers rarely pitching more than a couple of innings the first few times out. All of those are significant variables that make Spring games dramatically different from regular season games and thus make it difficult to accurately judge performance as a result. It can be hard to cut through all that other noise to really see how well a player performed.
Brian Matusz started the game last night for the O’s, which was far away the aspect of the game I was most anticipating. Coming off of a truly horrendous season, Matusz has reportedly rededicated himself by getting into fantastic shape and working out some of the other bugs that plagued him during the 2011 season. The difference in Matusz was noticeable from the very first pitch of last night’s game. His mechanics looked much smoother – his delivery far more natural - then they did during the latter part of the 2011 season. In the first inning, he was routinely at 90-91 MPH with his fastball according the radar gun on MASN and more importantly, his fastball appeared to have some nice life to it. During his two innings of work, he struck out three batters looking, all of which came on very well-located fastballs. His velocity dipped down to the 88 – 90 MPH range in the second inning, but that’s where Matusz will usually sit anyway. He has always been in the high 80’s, low 90’s range and can certainly be successful pitching at that speed. All in all he looked like a far cry from the pitcher who posted a 10.64 ERA in 49.2 IP in 2011. Having said that, the bottom line results certainly weren’t where anyone would have liked to see them be. After giving up a fisted bloop single to the leadoff batter, the second hitter of the game for the Pirates followed up with a hard hit double to left field. Before his night was over, Matusz would allow three runs on a combination of hard hit balls, seeing eye singles, and one bunt single. His stat line wasn’t pretty and he left at least a couple of belt high fastballs over the heart of the plate. Nonetheless, his line was a bit deceiving and he looked a lot better than the results might suggest. The big challenge for Matusz continues to be his fastball. He either needs to consistently locate it better or do a better job mixing in his secondary offerings to keep the hitters off balanced to the point where they aren’t able to take advantage of mistake belt-high fastballs the way they are now. At some point, Matusz and Matt Wieters need to mix in more off speed offerings to keep the hitters honest, otherwise Matusz will continue to fall victim to any mistake he makes with his fastball. His off speed pitches are too good not to be used in a more effective manner.
Aside from Matusz, there is not a whole lot to talk about. Kevin Gregg let up a line drive single and a homerun to the first two batters he faced, before settling down and striking out the side. Apparently, Gregg isn’t happy about his apparent demotion from closer. I wouldn’t expect or want him to react any differently. However, I also hope that some part of him realizes that the demotion is not undeserved nor should it come as a surprise given his performance last season. Matt Lindstrom and Darren O’Day made their Orioles’ debuts yesterday. You can see that both relievers have good stuff even if they struggled to get the desired results yesterday. Chris Davis looked comfortable at the plate and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him put up a solid season that will establish him as a solid, if unremarkable, everyday player.
At the end of the day, it is just nice to have baseball back. We still have a long ways to go to get to opening day – a full month to the day to be exact – but watching those first few games of the spring on television is always a lot of fun.