ATLANTA – In August 2019, Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos received an email from his vice president of scouting, Dana Brown, suggesting that the team sign a 28-year-old left-hander off independent ball. Also, the boy was recovering from the howling.
This idea did not make sense. Even if the kid was good, there were two weeks left in the minor league season. Why would they sign a guy who would be a free agent in two weeks?
Anthopoulos called Brown. “He pushed and he pushed and he pushed,” Anthopoulos said.
On August 15, Atlanta signed Tyler Matzek to a two-year minor league contract. On Saturday he got the six biggest outs of the season.
“I think it was worth it,” Anthopoulos said, champagne glasses on his forehead, the NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONS jersey reeking of beer. His club had just finished the Dodgers, 4-2, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series to capture Atlanta’s first pennant since 1999. Left fielder Eddie Rosario, who hit .560 in the series, he was still clinging to the National League Most Valuable Player trophy. But Anthopoulos wanted to talk about someone else.
“Not to take anything away from him, but Tyler Matzek, amazing,” he said. “Both guys could have been co-MVPs.”
Reliever Luke Jackson had another idea. “I should get a giant backpack award,” he said. “It should be placed there.”
In fact, Matzek came into the game to clean up the mess that Jackson had made. With a three-run lead, Jackson had allowed a double, a walk and a double. When manager Brian Snitker came out of the dugout, Jackson was only relieved. “Thank you,” he told the boss. “I can’t buy a part right now.” Plus, he knew who was on the way: “Tyler Nutsack,” Jackson said. “That’s what they all call him, because he has to drag those big balls to the mound every night.”
It means every night. On Wednesday, Matzek tied the record for consecutive games pitched to start a postseason, with eight. He got Thursday off because Los Angeles defeated Atlanta in Game 5. But on Saturday, when it looked like the game would slip away, that for the second year in a row the team would drown with a 3-1 NLCS lead over the Dodgers, Snitker raised his left arm and called out the most unlikely man on the list.
Only when the game was over did Matzek, who turned 31 last week, allowed himself to reflect on all that came before. Just over four years ago, he was crying when he told his wife, Lauren, that he was done with baseball. The Rockies had pulled him out of Capistrano Valley High School (California) with the eleventh pick in the 2009 draft, paid him $ 3.9 million and immediately set out to change everything that had made him the eleventh pick. Matzek had been training for two years with a six-pound female putter. Colorado took it from him.
“When they recruit you in the first round, they treat you like fine china and they don’t want you to break at all, so they fear that anything you’ve done before could hurt you,” Matzek. said. He began wearing weighted wristbands in his hotel room and sneaked off to a local park so he could launch his shot put into an oak tree. For years, he struggled with his mechanics and his penchant for feeling sorry for himself. When he rolled an ankle in spring training in 2015 and found himself suddenly unable to throw strikes, he gave up.
“All I had was fear,” he said. “That put me in a freezing mindset, and that’s what got me screaming.”
The Rockies demoted him to the minors, where he walked 16.5 batters for nine innings. The following year was more of the same. He had no idea where the ball was going. He played catch with his younger brother Kyle and hit him on the legs so many times that Kyle started shooting the ball at Tyler’s body in frustration. Finally, after the 2016 season, Colorado released Matzek. The White Sox signed him and released him. Then the teams stopped calling.
The registration deadline for community colleges was the end of September. In early September, Tyler told Lauren that he couldn’t move on. Lauren told him that she would support him no matter what he chose, but thought he had more to offer the game. That idea stuck with him. “I sat there and said: If she can go through the pain and suffering this is going to take, then I can too,” he said.
He learned from a former Navy SEAL named Jason Kuhn who had developed a yips case in college. Matzek flew to Tennessee to spend a week working with him.
When he returned, everything was different. After a bad game, Lauren says, Tyler was inconsolable once. Now she says, “It’s like it sucks tonightI don’t eat, I just stink. ”
In 2018, he signed a minor league contract with the Mariners. They released it. Matzek caught up with the Texas AirHogs of the American Association. “A high school team could have beaten that team,” said his stepfather, David Briney. He recalled watching games at the 5,000-seat AirHogs Stadium outside Dallas with “40 fans in the stands.”
“Forty?” Matzek said. “Forty would be a large crowd there.”
Tyler and Lauren and their 15-pound terrier mix lived in a friend’s RV in an RV park. In 2019, he signed a minor league contract with the Diamondbacks. They let him go, on the last day of a road trip, so he had to ride the bus 10 hours ago with a group of guys who were no longer his teammates.
But despite everything, he could feel himself strengthening mentally. The material had always been there and he began to believe that he could direct it. He was no longer terrified on the mound. And when Brown emailed Anthopoulos, Matzek was ready.
He, too, was ready when Snitker gestured at him on Saturday. The tying run came to the plate in the form of Albert Pujols, a future Hall of Famer from the inner circle who is listed for his ability to hit left-handers. With runners on second and third and no outs, Matzek knew he needed a strikeout. An out that didn’t pass the runners would give him room to make the next boy jump or even allow a sacrifice fly. So he pumped four seams and sliders down and in. Pujols swung through a slider on the ground for strike three.
“So it was just, okay, he got the first guy,” Matzek said. “Now we go after the second type, now we go after the third type.”
The second guy was pinch hitter Steven Souza, who was 0 in the series. Matzek made him look. The third guy was Mookie Betts, the Dodgers’ best hitter.
“He’s so difficult to attack, ”Anthopoulos said.
Matzek launched a 97 mph four-seam machine toward the heart of the plate. Betts watched him go. Matzek re-launched the same pitch. Betts saw it too. Matzek threw another, a little louder and a little higher. Betts swayed and missed. He turned and gaped at the ball, nestled safely in the glove of catcher Travis d’Arnaud.
Matzek clenched his fist so hard he jumped off the mound and into the dugout. The pitcher’s spot was fifth in the bottom of the seventh; he listened as pitching coach Rick Kranitz persuaded Snitker to let Matzek hit himself so he could pitch another inning.
“I was more excited about it!” Matzek said. “I was trying on different batting gloves.”
Unfortunately, d’Arnaud launched himself at the end of the frame. Matzek struck out Corey Seager on three pitches, then put Trea Turner and Will Smith to roll to third.
Three outs later, when the Atlanta players doused themselves with champagne, Jackson found Matzek and gave him a kiss. (Cheeks? Lips? “Whatever I can get right then,” Jackson said. “Whatever is available”). Matzek ran back to the field and hugged his family. And on the home bench, Anthopoulos thanked Brown.
Every year in August, the general manager forwards that initial email to the vice president to remind him of his good judgment. On Saturday, as they watched the World Series, no one needed to remind them.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.