Even a seven-homer slugfest was not enough to make anyone forget what was really important about the Orioles' 11-10 loss to the New York Yankees on a steamy Monday afternoon in the Bronx.
Struggling pitcher Brian Matusz may have used up his last lifeline.
Matusz was hoping that a trip to Yankee Stadium might be an elixir after five straight outings in which he had surrendered five or more earned runs. He had always pitched well here, and had a 2.10 ERA in four career starts at a stadium that has long been a house of horrors for the rest of his Orioles teammates.
Now, he can join the club. The O's staked him to a 5-2 lead in the top of the second inning, but the Yankees batted around to score six times in the bottom of the second to knock him out of the game. The 1 1/3-inning performance equaled the shortest non-injury outing of his young — and seemingly endangered — career.
The only question left is how long manager Buck Showalter is going to let this go on. Matusz raised his ERA to a frightening 9.84 and made a pretty strong case for getting the rest of the season off.
Showalter would not confirm that Matusz has made his final start of the 2011 season, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines when he declined to answer any questions about the next time the Orioles' erstwhile top prospect will get the ball.
"He's not going to read about it,'' Showalter said. "I'm not going to say it on TV. Just like I always do, I talk to him about different stuff. Brian knows when things are right and when they're not. You could do them unspoken, but I wouldn't do that. We'll talk probably tomorrow when emotions settle. It's not for lack of effort."
Matusz came into this season on a mountain of expectation after he closed out 2011 with a 7-1 record during the final two months of the season. He was supposed to be the Orioles' No. 2 starter, but suffered an intercostals strain at the end of spring training and missed the first two months of the season.
He returned June 1 and pitched well in his first two starts, but his season quickly unraveled and he was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk after giving up 14 earned runs in eight innings in two interleague starts against the Reds and Cardinals. In four starts since his recall, he is 0-3 with an 11.42 ERA, and he has to know that his place in the rotation is in danger.
"That's not my decision,'' Matusz said. "I'm going to take the ball when Buck gives it to me. I'm going to keep fighting, keep working hard and be able to build off the positives that I've had, and keep going and keep bearing down and keep doing the things I know I can do well."
He struggled pretty much from the outset, giving up a two-out home run to Mark Teixeira in the first inning and allowing a second run on a walk and a pair of singles. The Orioles came right back to bat around in the top of the second and score four times off Yankees starter Freddy Garcia, but Matusz walked the leadoff man in the bottom of the inning and gave up back-to-back doubles to Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson — the second scoring two runs and bringing Showalter to the mound.
The inning blew up when reliever Chris Jakubauskas came on to load the bases and give up a grand slam to Robinson Cano, leaving Matusz with his fifth earned run and the Orioles suddenly three runs down.
Mark Reynolds made it a one-run game when he launched a two-run shot off Garcia in the third, and Robert Andino tied the game with a solo homer in the fifth. But Orioles reliever Jim Johnson fell victim to the first two major league home runs by rookie DH Jesus Montero and the Yankees held off a late Orioles rally to move 2 ½ games up on the Red Sox in the American League East.
It was Reynolds' 32nd home run of the season and it highlighted a performance that also included a single, a double and a walk, but he didn't feel much like celebrating after watching the Orioles lose another close one and Matusz suffer through an afternoon that might bring a premature end to his season.
"I feel for the kid,'' Reynolds said. "I struggled just like he does, and so did everyone else in here. You feel for someone like that. I guess he had a pretty good year last year, a lot of people had high expectations for him this year. So hopefully he takes this offseason, regroups and comes back strong and comes back healthy in the spring. And [he] can forget about this year and move forward."
Reynolds seemed to sense what everybody else did — that the Orioles would shut down Matusz and go back to the drawing board to get him ready for 2012. Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail sounded equally fatalistic.
"I don't know that he's doing us any good or we're doing him any good," MacPhail said. "But it really is a function of the manager and the pitching coach."