Buck Showalter's arrival as Orioles manager last season was a booster shot of competence for a franchise that had been allowed to deteriorate for far too long, a sense that the organization and its place in the game mattered again. There were several dramatic walk-off wins and a 34-23 finish to the year. Now at 30-33 this season, the team has reached that point in the discussion that goes, "The Orioles are on the upswing. Yes, but ... they have a long way to go." The key is the attentive cultivation of a young pitching staff and Showalter knows harvest time is still a ways off.
"These guys are sharing a lot of the first-time things together," he told me. "They come with different backgrounds and different makeups, they're not all robots. The AL East is relentless, it's a tough place to develop young pitching but I'll tell you one thing: If they get through it they'll be as mentally tough as anyone. We'll have some good and bad while we get some seed on the ground."
An immediate concern is 24-year-old Brian Matusz, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. In his final eight starts last season, Matusz went 6-0 with a 1.57 ERA and allowed just 29 hits in 46 innings. However, Matusz missed the first two months of this season with a painful intercostal strain in his rib area and retired only four batters in Sunday's 9-6 loss to Tampa Bay, allowing four runs and five hits while walking four. In three starts since his return from the DL, Matusz's WHIP is 1.78.
The biggest issue is a dramatic dip in Matusz's velocity. Johnny Damon led off the game with a home run on an 86-mph fastball. Matusz's fastball Sunday was consistently between 85 and 87 mph and never higher than 89 mph. Matusz insisted after the game that he's 100 percent healthy. Both Damon and Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters that Matusz isn't throwing as hard as he has in the past, with Maddon adding that he thinks Matusz isn't fully healthy.
"He's basically just starting out in spring training," Showalter said. "He's not where he's going to be. He came out of camp as our second starter and the challenge was not to rush him back."
Zach Britton, a 23-year-old lefty, was too impressive this spring to leave behind and by May 1, Britton was 5-1, 2.63. In seven starts since, however, Britton is 1-3, 3.65 and with 82 innings already worked toward a cap of approximately 180, the Orioles will skip Britton's scheduled start on Tuesday in an effort to slow his workload so he's available to pitch in September, a step the organization will likely take several more times. "I had a talk with him after his last start," Showalter said. "I told him, 'I know you'd like to go 25-0 but it's not going to happen. A guy with 30 or 35 starts may go out there with all his bullets only 10 times a year. It's those other 20 starts when you learn to pitch in the big leagues. What are you going to do to defend yourself and keep us in the game?' That's the reason you love the kid, he expects perfection."
A bright spot has been 25-year-old right-hander Jake Arrieta. In Friday's 7-0 win over Tampa Bay, Arrieta threw 72 of his 98 pitches in the outer third of the strike zone or further outside, the highest percentage of his career. Sixty of his 71 pitches to left-handed hitters were away as lefties went 1-for-12 against him. It was a clear sign of progress. "Sometimes I don't think he knows how good he can be," Showalter said. "A pitching coach can't make a visit after every hitter or two so they have to understand and figure out by themselves out there what's going on."
There are no shortage of young rotation candidates and the Orioles are making sure the list keeps growing. Brad Bergesen, 25, and Chris Tillman, 23, struggled and were sent to Triple-A Norfolk, where Bergesen is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA. In last week's amateur draft, Baltimore used 15 of its first 30 selections on pitchers, including seven of its first 10 picks. Showalter explained the organizational philosophy this way: "Very few teams can sign a No. 1 starter or trade for a No. 1 starter. We have to grow and develop our own. That's why most of our picks were pitchers. Once you have pitchers you can always go out and get bats."
The Orioles used the fourth overall pick to take the first prep player selected, Dylan Bundy, a high school pitcher from Oklahoma whose father built a baseball field in the family backyard. As a senior, Bundy went 11-0 with 158 strikeouts and only five walks in 71 innings. "We can't draft a safe college pitcher," Showalter said. "We have to take the guy who has the best chance to get to the front of our rotation. Try as you may, you can't screw up the good ones. We think he has as much upside as anybody in the draft. We have to out-evaluate and out-work. You have to trust your evaluations and we like where we are in the process."
Yes, the Orioles are on the upswing but they have a long way to go.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.