Brian Mastusz can finally smile a bit. The velocity is building, the consistency is back and, now, he even has a few wins to show for it.
Matusz turned in the best start of his season Thursday, holding playoff-contending Lehigh Valley to just five hits in his first complete game in two years in the Norfolk Tides' 7-0 win.
"For me, I had a good feel for all my pitches," he said. "I got better as the game went on."
Matusz, optioned back to Triple-A after a rough series of outings in Baltimore, threw 74 of his 105 pitches for strikes in his third straight quality start. He walked one and hit a pair of batters.
The five-hitter has to be a relief of sorts for the 2008 first-round pick, who got his first taste of failure in the Majors this season after dazzling as one of the Majors' top rookie arms in 2010. His win on Thursday, he said, is just another sign of the progress he's made since returning to the Minors last month.
"Absolutely, I've made tremendous progress," Matusz said. "Especially in the last couple weeks -- to get that groove and consistency back, to be able to throw all four pitches for strikes. I've been keeping hitters off balance and just have confidence being myself. Being confident to let it fly and have fun, and it's been a good feeling."
The southpaw retired the first five batters he faced before working around a double and hit batter in the second inning. The IronPigs had runners on the corners in the third, but Matusz struck out Delwyn Young swinging to preserve the shutout.
"Those are the toughest situations, with runners in scoring position, so it's important to make good pitches to get outs," he said. "I was able to relax and was able to do that today -- to be able to bear down and execute like that in tough situations is the toughest part of the game. So it's good to get momentum going into the next inning."
Matusz used that momentum to dominate the latter innings -- he struck out the side in the fourth despite allowing a single and a double and worked a 1-2-3 fifth before cruising to the win, retiring the final eight batters he faced. His shutout was his first since 2009 with Double-A Bowie and the Tides' second of the season -- Brad Bergesen threw the other June 8 against Pawtucket.
"I had a nice feel on the slider -- it was a good out pitch," he said. "I went in and out with my fastball, and that was key, and getting ahead in the count."
Matusz also was quick to mention his 74 strikes. He said he threw only 10 pitches over the final two innings.
"Late in the game, I had short efficient innings," he said. "That's really what allowed me to go all nine."
For Matusz, the consistency is coming back after a rough start with the Orioles in which he went 6-6 with an 8.76 ERA in 25 2/3 innings. His last outing for the O's came on June 30, when he allowed eight earned runs over 3 1/3 innings to St. Louis. He missed time earlier in the year with an oblique injury, leading to a drop in velocity, and he recently spoke about a lack of mental preparedness coming into the year after having his mechanics reworked in Spring Training.
The velocity -- he was averaging around 86-88 mph on his fastball in the Majors -- has returned, he said. Although never a flame-thrower, Matusz still managed to win 10 games and strike out 143 batters in 175 2/3 innings as a rookie last year in the treacherous American League East.
"My velocity is back up -- it's getting better with every start in Triple-A, and that comes with having confidence and having a good feel on the mound and letting the ball come out of my hand without effort," he said. "My strength and conditioning program has improved, and I'm working hard to go deep and be able to go back up, and it's been fun the last couple weeks."
Aside from a few bumps, Matusz has looked pretty solid since his return to the Minors -- he's allowed three earned runs or fewer in seven of his last nine Triple-A starts and has struck out six or more in five of them.
He held Rochester to one run over seven innings on his previous start Aug. 6, limited first-place Columbus to three runs over seven on July 31 and silenced Gwinnett on July 16 with three hits over seven shutout innings.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has been pleased with Matusz's progress, saying he's seen improvement with each outing.
"He's doing a lot of things that he's getting a little better each time out. Obviously, today was a good step for him," Showalter told MLB.com on Thursday. "It's a good outing against -- it sounds like -- a pretty good Triple-A team, and that's what we want him to do."
"Just being able to throw a lot of strikes helped me keep the pitch count down, and Lehigh Valley was a free-swinging team today, so that allowed me to move quickly," Matusz said. "I was just able to settle in and attack the zone."
The Tides, shut out themselves for the first six innings, finally put their starter in line for a win with four runs in the seventh off Major League veteran Ryan Feierabend. Jake Fox hit an RBI double and scored on Brendan Harris' single before Carlos Rojas plated a run and Matt Angle drew a bases-loaded walk. Harris added a two-run single in the eighth.