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Futures Game reunites top O's prospects

Futures Game reunites top O's prospects

Back in the middle of March, two-thirds of the future Orioles rotation got sent down from big-league Spring Training. Baltimore's Minor League camp is on the other side of the state of Florida, so the duo rode together from Ft. Lauderdale to Sarasota.

In Minor League camp, the lefty and righty roomed together and a good friendship was formed, one that extended into the season, even though the two were ultimately sent to different levels of Baltimore's system. Who knew that Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman would get the chance to reunite before both were called upon to pitch in Baltimore? Both will be representing the Orioles organization on the U.S. Team in the XM All-Star Futures Game.

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"We became pretty close," Matusz said about getting to know Tillman this spring. "We talk all the time. It'll be fun, playing with a teammate hopefully I'll be playing with for a long time."

The 11th annual XM All-Star Futures Game, pitting the best Minor League prospects from the United States against the best from the rest of the World, will be held at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on All-Star Sunday, July 12, at 1 p.m. CT. MLB.com will provide complete coverage before, during and after the game, which can be seen live on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD and followed live on Gameday.

Orioles fans will certainly want to tune in. In Tillman, who's in Triple-A, and Matusz, now part of Double-A Bowie's rotation, they see a bright future, one in which pitching can carry them back to the top of the AL East.

"We try to stay away from that subject," Tillman said. "We try to go day by day and do our job every fifth day. But it's always in our heads. It's every kid's dream to get up there as soon as possible."

"With Tillman, myself and [Jake] Arrieta -- Arrieta had the opportunity to play in the Futures Game last year and now we'll get that opportunity," Matusz added "It's a lot of fun knowing there's a lot of talent in this organization and that someday, hopefully, we'll be up in the big leagues soon and make an impact on the big-league squad."

The first step will come on Sunday at Busch Stadium, though both have been pitching their way quickly to a more permanent place in the Majors. Tillman, who joined the Orioles organization prior to the 2008 season from the Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade, has been pitching all year in the Triple-A International League at age 21. The big right-hander has gone just 6-5, but his 2.69 ERA is the seventh-best in the league. He's struck out more than a batter per inning and held hitters to a .219 average.

Matusz is experiencing his first true taste of of pro ball. The 2008 first-round pick got his feet wet in the Arizona Fall League, but the official start to his career came in April. To say he's on the fast track would be an understatement. The lefty has already been promoted and is currently in the Double-A Eastern League. Fresh off a one-hit, eight-inning performance on Tuesday, Matusz has gone a combined 8-2 with a 1.65 ERA. In 93 total innings, he's struck out 107, walked just 27 and held hitters to a .198 average. He's fifth in all of the Minors in ERA and tied for fifth in strikeouts. The time in the AFL, he thinks, certainly served as an excellent springboard and crash course in pitching against better hitters than he faced in college.

"It helped with my development of becoming a better pitcher and being able to play against that top competition, knowing what I need to do," Matusz said. "Obviously, I had to come out in Frederick and have success and I did. I've been working on the five-day rotation, getting into a good groove, getting into a routine. I feel like I've been getting better and better every week. That's the name of the game."

Matusz may not have been as even-keeled when he and Tillman initially met. It was the No. 4 pick's first Spring Training, and to make it even more nerve-racking, it was his first big-league camp at the same time. "At first, he was nervous, coming into big-league camp," Tillman said. "We hit it off really quick right when he came in. We hung out on and off the field. We got sent down the same day, carpooled down there, asked if we could room each other.

"We text each other after every start. It's a cool thing to see. He's from Arizona, I'm from California, it's not too far. We can maybe hang out a little during the offseason."

First, they'll get to hang out in St. Louis for a couple of days. Their organization-mate Arrieta not only pitched a scoreless inning in last year's Futures Game, but also went on to pitch for the U.S. in the Olympics. He's advised both Tillman and Matusz to soak the Futures Game experience up and that his time at Yankee Stadium was an absolute blast.

It can often provide a nice lift into the second half of the season. Not that either hurler needs much help with the way they've performed in the first half, but every bit of motivation can be beneficial.

"It definitely helps, playing in a big-league stadium, a ton of big leaguers around," Tillman said. should be an exciting time. It'll give me a boost for the second half."

"To have that honor to be able to play in the Futures Game with the top Minor League guys, play on big-league field, on that stage, on national television, it's just a great honor, especially in my first year of pro ball," Matusz said. "I'm really excited about it, excited for the opportunity to go out there."

If nothing else, it'll provide another common talking point for three pitchers who could be taking turns competing on big-league mounds in the not-too-distant future. It seems the trio of Matusz, Tillman and Arrieta are already building a strong foundation. Having the shared experience of pitching in a Futures Game will only add to it.

"It gives you more things to talk about, more we have in common," Tillman agreed. "It helps in our relationship. Brian and I are already pretty close. Jake and I are building a relationship now. It's one of those things we'll step aside and talk about.

"I think it's really important, having a relationship with the starting pitchers. You tend to hang out together. Starting that early, in the minors, is important. Last year, we had great a staff and we always hung out. Half of them are in the big leagues now. That's definitely a good thing."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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