April 24, 2007
By Jason Owens
Special to CSTV.com
SAN DIEGO - Brian Matusz's best pitch is his 94-mph fastball. Just ask his pitching coach, San Diego's Eric Valenzuela.
Or maybe it's his newly developed slider-cutter that catcher Jordan Abruzzo sometimes has to fight to pull from the dirt after the batter has swung and missed.
"He can throw it right at that back knee of a righty, who will swing over it, or away from a lefty," Abruzzo said, "and that's just impossible for a lefty to hit."
Ask coach Rich Hill and he'll tell you that Matusz's changeup is his strength. He likes that fastball a lot too, though.
Regardless of which pitch is his best, and the humble Matusz certainly won't say, the point of all this is that they're all very good and they've all helped the sophomore phenom develop into one of college baseball's brightest stars and a big-time Major League pitching prospect.
He has a nation's best 119 strikeouts to prove it. In 81 innings of action, that adds up to 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings. All of those strikeouts have helped him to an 8-2 record and 2.57 ERA.
His pitching, along with a recent team offensive explosion and a well-rounded pitching staff, has helped the Toreros to a Top 20 national ranking and first-place tie with Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference. That tie will be broken this weekend when the Waves travel to San Diego in a three-game set that has big-time conference title implications.
Matusz will take the mound in Friday's crucial tone setter against Barry Enright, Pepperdine's own big-time Major League prospect. Hill knows having a pitcher like Matusz start game one is key to setting the tone for this or any series.
"He's a great pitcher to start the series," Hill said. "He's the kind of guy that can put a team in a slump for the weekend."
Hill and Rodriguez recruited Matusz for these kinds of games. They plucked him from Arizona out of the clutches of bigger suitors like Arizona State and UCLA to the small Catholic school built on a San Diego hillside, just minutes from the Pacific Ocean.
They also lured him away from turning pro early after the then-Anaheim Angels drafted him out of high school. Matusz says he wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I went to a Catholic high school, so I'm used to going to a small Catholic school," Matusz said of his decision to attend USD. "The baseball program's really rising right now. The coaches are unbelievable. It's just a perfect fit for me."
He's meshed well with his teammates and developed good relationships with Abruzzo and fellow catcher Logan Gelbrich. Abruzzo, a senior and team leader who is busy rewriting the USD offensive record book, almost shines when talking about Matusz and picks up the slack when Matusz shies away from talking about accolades.
"I come out to Brian, give him a breather, calm him down sometimes if he's struggling," Abruzzo said of playing with Matusz. "I don't really need to get on him at all or yell at him. Some guys I do. It doesn't matter with him."
Abruzzo helps to keep Matusz focused as well. Earlier in the season, Matusz took the mound holding a double-digit lead over Portland one strikeout away from matching the San Diego single-game record of 14.
He didn't even know it. He says at the end of every game Abruzzo asks him how many batters he walked and he always knows the answer. He doesn't find out about the strikeouts until he sees the box score.
Abruzzo sure knew how close he was during that Portland game, though.
"I was back there and he was one away," Abruzzo said. "I think he got two strikes on every hitter. Every time the guy made contact. I was saying to myself, `oh man, we could have had that one.' But he had no clue. He was just throwing his game. But I knew. I wanted it for him."
He didn't get the record that day, but he did retire all three batters in the eighth inning.
As good as Matusz is now, the 20-year-old lefty is still very much a work in progress in stature and skill. Standing 6-foot-4, he's hovering at just under 200 pounds. And he's already put on 20 pounds since last season.
"That's the scary thing," Valenzuela said of Matusz's room for development and improvement. "He hasn't filled out yet. He's still skinny. The sky's the limit; he gets better week by week."
Some of his best pitches are still in their early stages of development as well. Hill said he didn't gain control of his curveball until college. The aforementioned slider-cutter is a new addition this season.
Abruzzo certainly appreciates Matusz's development thus far.
"It's easier for me," said Abruzzo of catching Matusz. "Last year we had some control issues. This year, he's really matured with spotting his fastball and developed a slider. This year it's just throw down the sign, set up and catch it."
Being a senior, Abruzzo only has a couple more months to fully appreciate what Matusz is bringing to the table. But if Matusz sticks around for his full eligibility, San Diego could see two more years of his development. By that time, it could be something truly special.