ST. PETERSBURG -- Over the last few weeks, Orioles starter Brian Matusz has started building momentum, lending hope to the credence -- which started this spring -- that the 25-year-old is ready to become a rotation mainstay.
On Saturday, Matusz took another big step forward. And he took his teammates with him.
Matusz pitched a season-high 7 1/3 innings, turning in a dominant outing that set the tone in Baltimore's much-needed 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. The victory snapped the team's season-high six-game losing streak and put the Orioles back in a tie for first place with the Rays.
And they did it thanks in large part to Matusz, whose return -- after a disappointing 2011 -- is becoming increasingly evident in his demeanor as much as his performance.
"It's what comes first, success or confidence?" pitching coach Rick Adair said of Matusz, who is 4-1 with a 2.87 ERA in his last five starts. "He's gained a lot of confidence in his preparation, which I think is obviously carrying over to competition. And he's in a good place mentally.
"He's very intense, but there's some calmness to what he's doing. And it's good to see."
"Last year when we saw him, he wasn't even close to those numbers, velocity-wise," Rays manager Joe Maddon said as he watched his club muster one run on two hits off Matusz. "With the velocity, the breaking ball becomes a more effective pitch. Last year, the velocity didn't even hardly reach the 90s, even the upper 80s, so the breaking ball was a moot point. He's a different cat right now. He looks like he did a couple of years ago."
Matusz's outing -- the Orioles' first quality start since his last game on May 27 -- was his fourth consecutive quality start, marking the first time he has pitched more than seven innings since August 19, 2010. It was also a far cry from the way he started the season, with three consecutive losses and a career-high 12-game losing streak that finally ended on May 1.
"Brian's a rare left-hander in that he's got two breaking balls, a curveball and a slider that are two different pitches and present two different looks," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He had command of those today and he was the difference in that ballgame."
Using a back-door slider as a key put-away pitch to right-handed hitters, Matusz struck out seven in the 97-pitch outing. Of the 29 sliders Matusz threw, 22 were for strikes and the Rays swung at 19, missing 10.
"I'm just letting it rip, really," Matusz said of his slider. "Just letting it go and attacking the zone with it. It's got great bite, so I'll hang with it."
The pair of offspeed pitches ensured the Rays couldn't hang around, as Matusz cruised through the first four innings on 48 pitches and didn't give up a hit until Sean Rodriguez doubled -- and later scored -- in the fifth. It would be the only run allowed by Matusz, who got just enough offense -- including Endy Chavez's first homer of the season -- to pick up his fifth win.
"He was consistent in hitting the corners," Chavez said of Matusz. "And he was outstanding for us. He pitched quick innings and gave us a chance to win the game."
Chavez got the Orioles on the board, sending Jeremy Hellickson's 2-1 cutter into the right-field seats in the third inning. The two-out solo shot, Chavez's first homer since August 9, 2011, was Baltimore's first extra-base hit since Tuesday in the ninth-inning at Toronto.
Despite several hard hits and a few balls to the warning track, the Orioles couldn't score again until Hellickson left the game, capitalizing on an errant throw from third baseman Drew Sutton to take a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning. Mark Reynolds drilled a one-out double off the left-field wall and Ryan Flaherty reached on catcher's interference before Robert Andino hit a routine ball to Sutton that scored Reynolds on the bad throw.
The Rays loaded the bases without a hit in the bottom of the eighth, as Reynolds' error put No. 9 hitter Elliot Johnson on base and Matusz walked Carlos Pena to end his outing. Reliever Pedro Strop walked B.J. Upton, but got an inning-ending double play ball from Ben Zobrist, which included a great turn from shortstop J.J. Hardy, to keep the lead intact.
"J.J. is as fundamentally sound a shortstop as I've ever had," Showalter said. "He just doesn't assume anything. You like him involved in every crucial play, because he can slow the game down."
Closer Jim Johnson pitched a perfect ninth for his 17th save of the year, extending his consecutive saves streak to 25, dating back to last season, to put the finishing touches on the win.
"Any time I step on the mound, I want to go out there and compete and bring my best game," Matusz said. "But to end the losing streak is definitely a good feeling. It was nice to be able to go out there and end it and get back on the winning side of things."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.