An early favorite for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, Matusz went 2-1 with a 4.43 ERA in his first four starts this season, providing stability for a beleaguered Orioles squad that started the season 2-16. Since losing against the Yankees on April 29, Matusz has allowed 20 earned runs over 24 innings, including eight first-inning scores.
"The last three times he's pitched, there's been some rocky innings for him," manager Dave Trembley said of Matusz. "We've all got to find a way to get him more in line and be consistent right from the very beginning. The first inning [on Wednesday] wasn't him. It just wasn't him, and it cost us."
A's outfielder Rajai Davis returned to the lineup and singled on Matusz's second pitch of the game, advancing to third on a sacrifice bunt and a steal. Kurt Suzuki singled him in for the game's first run, and Matusz issued his first walk of the night to Kevin Kouzmanoff. One out later, Adam Rosales blasted a belt-high 1-2 fastball deep to left field to give Oakland a four-run lead before the Orioles even got to swing the bat.
"It's just location," Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters said of Matusz's early struggles. "He's getting the ball a little bit up. I don't know if it's a little too much adrenaline coming out of the 'pen, but from innings two through five, he was vintage Matusz -- good changeup, locating his fastball. It was just that first inning. We got to get it right out of the gate and get him locating from the start."
Trembley agreed that Matusz's location has been the crux of his problems, and noted that the young lefty's arm angle was much improved as the game progressed.
"I think [early on] it's a combination of him pitching in the middle of the plate, the ball up, and he's not getting his two-seamer across," Trembley said. "He's not getting his fastball in on hitters and the two-seamer is not getting away."
Matusz, who has dropped a career-high five straight decisions, said he isn't concerned about his performance in the past few outings.
"I know I have the ability to get hitters out," he said. "I've proven in a few innings in that stretch, when I've really pitched my game, that was a good feeling, and I want to be able to feel that consistently, be able to do that consistently.
"What's done is done. I can't dwell on a couple bad outings that I've had, because that's not going to make me better."
Instead, Matusz focused on the positives of the 94-pitching outing, namely pounding the ball down in the zone and making adjustments to hold the A's to one run in his last three-plus innings.
"It was a good thing we got him early, because when he settled in, got his changeup going and started painting his fastball inside, he shut us down," Athletics manager Bob Geren said. "You can see how talented a young guy he is. We were fortunate to get to him early."
Following the four-run first, the A's plated another run in the second off of an RBI single from Daric Barton, and Matusz responded by retiring 10 straight batters. But the early scores, most notably Rosales' homer, held up as the game's decisive factor.
"The first inning, that's the difference in the game," Trembley said. "Heck, you stick [A's starter Trevor] Cahill with four runs in the first and he's a ground-ball machine. Everybody knows how he's pitched in his last three or four starts and what his numbers are. It's hard to overcome that."
Cahill held the offense in check, surrending just one -- very important -- blast. One at-bat shy of his career longest homerless drought, Orioles first baseman Garrett Atkins finally went yard. Atkins drove Cahill's curveball 374 feet over the left-field fence to put Baltimore on the scoreboard.
Atkins' solo shot -- which came in the third inning -- snapped a 47-game drought and ended his homerless at-bat stretch at 146.
"That's one more thing that everybody can put to bed now, that [Atkins] hit a home run," Trembley said. "I'm sure he feels a lot better because of it."
Serving as the team's designated hitter for the second consecutive game -- in place of injured Luke Scott -- Atkins' blast marked his seventh RBI of the season, and was his first homer since Sept. 10, 2009.
"Hopefully it's a sign of finding a swing," Atkins said. "In the past, when I've been able to find a swing, it's sustained itself for a while. So hopefully I just continue having quality at-bats, hitting balls hard like [on Wednesday].
"The way things are going around here right now, if you're swinging the bat, they'll find somewhere to put you."
The Orioles' stagnant offense mustered just three hits and went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position, stranding six baserunners.
"We had that one real good opportunity after Atkins hit the home run and it's 5-1 and Nicky [Markakis] is up," Trembley said. "But the guys who are hitting two, three, four and five for us, I don't think we got a hit. So they pitched real well."
Markakis' defensive prowess helped Frank Mata toss a scoreless Major League debut, as the O's right fielder made a diving catch at the warning track to end the seventh inning. Mata entered in place of Matusz in the sixth and stranded a pair of A's runners. The 26-year-old right-hander retired Jake Fox on a flyout, and center fielder Adam Jones caught Mark Ellis' ball and then threw home to Wieters -- who nabbed a hustling Ryan Sweeney before he slid into the plate -- completing an inning-ending double play.
Wieters roughed up his left shoulder on the tag out at home plate in the sixth and Trembley and head athletic trainer Richie Bancells both came out onto the field to check on the catcher. But Wieters took his at-bat in the bottom of the inning and remained behind the plate the rest of the game.
"It was sort of an awkward angle to make a tag and it sort of grabbed on me when I reached to tag [Sweeney]," Wieters said.
"We came back in and checked the strength and the range of movement and it was fine."