Orioles cautious with Matusz, Tillman

Orioles cautious with Matusz, Tillman

BALTIMORE -- Three more starts, then take a bow. The Orioles will phase out some of their most promising prospects down the September stretch, allowing them to take on a valedictory role for the rest of the year. Baltimore wants Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz to end their seasons early and reflect on their success in the Majors.

And in part, that's caution at play. Andy MacPhail, the team's president of baseball operations, has said several times that his prized arms have come along a lot quicker than he had expected before the season. Now, MacPhail feels the burden to protect them from themselves and to make sure they don't take on too much too soon.

"With Brian, you have to remember that this is a first-year pro experience," MacPhail said recently. "He doesn't have the innings built up that Chris Tillman, Jason Berken or David Hernandez do from pitching professionally. You don't want to see them exceed a certain percentage over the amount of innings they pitched last year if you can avoid it. There will come a time where we've got to slow down or just stop them as they get into September."

Manager Dave Trembley said that's likely a three-start deal for both Matusz and Tillman, but MacPhail has said that it's not quite as cut-and-dried as that may sound. He wants to take a look at their workload -- 143 2/3 innings for Matusz this season and 137 for Tillman -- and stop them before they get into dangerous territory.

"We'll talk to them," said MacPhail. "It's not something that is a formula, [where] you get to a number and that's that. You're doing it with the other information. You're talking to the player, you're talking to the medical staff. But down the road, we're just going to have to keep an eye on it, and when the time comes, the time comes."

Considering the circumstances, knowing when that time will come seems a bit nebulous. Tillman, just 21 years old, threw 135 2/3 innings for Double-A Bowie last year but has been further tested against upper-level bats. Matusz, a year removed from pitching in college, threw just 105 innings in his last amateur season.

Pitching coach Rick Kranitz has watched both Matusz and Tillman carefully over the past few weeks. And with both of them, he said, there are some similarities and some differences. Kranitz spoke glowingly of Matusz after his most recent outing, a start in which he threw seven innings of one-run ball and struck out eight batters.

"This is a new experience, and they're in virgin territory. Anything that you do is new to them," he said. "They've got to be comfortable with where they are, and I think they are. They also have to know that their stuff is good enough to get guys out before they take a step further. What we saw from Matusz in his last start, that's something we can look forward to in the future. He realized he made some unbelievable adjustments in that game. Tillman is right there. He's been very competitive, but he just hasn't pushed through to the other side yet to really dominate a game. He can, and that's what I want to see -- that he shows from the first inning through the eighth, 'Here I am.'"

And when he says that, Kranitz means no slight toward Tillman, who has been more consistent than Matusz thus far in their brief big league apprenticeship. It's just that when he looks at their respective Minor League performances, he notices a stark difference. Tillman had some bumps in the road, while Matusz faced virtually no adversity.

Matusz, a southpaw, cruised through the first half of the season in the Class A Carolina League and then went 7-0 with a 1.55 ERA in eight starts for Double-A Bowie. Tillman had more of a natural learning curve in the Minors, and Kranitz wasn't quite sure how Matusz would handle himself if he pitched through a rough patch.

Kranitz found out last week, when the left-hander shook off some mixed results to fire his seven-inning gem.

"Matusz hadn't struggled, and that's a concern," Kranitz said. "Tillman had struggled, and most of the guys that play in the Minor Leagues, it's not like they go straight through it without any problems. But Matusz has had none, and when he came here, he had to work probably as hard as he's ever worked in his life to get outs. And that's the great thing about him: He knows who he is. That's the first thing a pitcher has to learn, to learn who they are, what they can do. Everything else is secondary. With Tillman, there's been a progression with him as far as being able to hold runners and his tempo. That stuff was a concern through the Minor Leagues and he's gotten a lot better with it. Now we've just got to make sure that when he gets to the point of putting guys away, he puts them away."

Kranitz said that both Tillman and Matusz can look up to fellow rookie Brad Bergesen, who handled the big league transition in ideal fashion before being sidelined by a bruised shin. Bergesen went 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA in 19 starts for Baltimore and helped set the mold for how Kranitz wants his pitchers to progress.

"His season was excellent -- that's a guy who made tremendous adjustments," said Kranitz. "He was another one who understood himself really well, and I think he learned a lot of that in the big leagues. The one thing about him is he has a lot of urgency with what he needs to do and what he wants to accomplish in this game. And all the great ones have that. The guys that last the longest in this game never sit back and relax.

"[Bergesen's] told me, 'I don't want to just stay here one or two years. I want to make a career out of this.' And you have to have that kind of thought process to keep moving forward. I've seen it way too many times when guys come up and have good years or feel like they've finally arrived. Then they go to the offseason and come back having not worked as hard or having lost the edge. And as soon as you lose the edge, hitters will knock you right off of it. I've seen that too many times with young guys, and I don't sense that from Bergy at all. And I don't sense that from Matusz, even though he's just a young guy."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.