When Braves manager Brian Snitker came out to the mound to take the ball from Luke Jackson and hand it to Tyler Matzek on Saturday night, it felt as though the game — and perhaps the series — were hanging in the balance.
It was the top of the seventh inning, and after shutting down Dodgers hitters all night in Game 6 of the NLCS, Atlanta had given Los Angeles an opening. A leadoff double by Chris Taylor, a walk to Cody Bellinger and an RBI double by A.J. Pollock made it a 4-2 game. Suddenly, the Dodgers were a base hit away from tying the game with nobody out.
Enter Matzek. The flame-throwing southpaw struck out Albert Pujols, struck out Steven Souza Jr. and struck out Mookie Betts, stranding the tying run (Pollock) at second base and moving the Braves to six outs away from a World Series berth.
Matzek said after the game that he was hoping to at least strike out the first batter. He felt that if he could just get that first out, then he could afford to give up a sacrifice fly and potentially leave with the lead.
“Luke went in there, he struggled a bit, an unfortunate hit that went down the left-field line (Taylor’s double). He’s gotten me out of those situations plenty of times this season, so it was time for me to repay him,” Matzek said. “It was just being aggressive and doing it for Luke, trying to keep those runs from scoring for him.”
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He wasn’t finished after that. Matzek pitched the eighth inning, too, striking out the first batter he faced before rolling a pair of groundouts in a 1-2-3 frame. He put the ball and the pennant in closer Will Smith’s hands.
After a 1-2-3 ninth by Smith, Matzek and the Braves were on their way to the World Series.
This was likely not a future many saw for Matzek a few years ago. Prior to the 2020 season, he hadn’t appeared in a big-league game since 2015. He had to work his way back from a case of the yips, toiling in the minors and independent leagues, before returning to the majors with the Braves.
First-round draft pick
Coming out of high school in Mission Viejo, Calif., Matzek was viewed as one of the top prep arms in the 2009 MLB Draft class.
Baseball America ranked him No. 9 overall in the class. The Rockies decided he would be their guy, taking him 11th overall.
He showed immediate promise in the minors. Matzek finished his first professional season with a 2.92 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings over 18 starts at low Single-A in 2010. His 62 walks were high, but that was to be expected from a high schooler still learning his craft. Baseball America listed him as No. 23 overall in its 2010 prospect rankings.
Matzek continued to fight with control issues in the minors, but he eventually made his MLB debut with Colorado in 2014. He pitched to a 6-11 record and 4.05 ERA in 117 2/3 innings, with 91 strikeouts and just 44 walks. He started 2015 in the big leagues and pitched to a 4.09 ERA in 22 innings, but he walked 19 and struck out just 15. He was sent back to the minors on May 8.
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According to MLB.com, Matzek discovered over time that his issue was performance anxiety, commonly referred to in baseball as the yips.
“When you’re throwing it behind hitters and have no idea where the ball is going as a lefty, that’s usually a pretty good indicator something is wrong,” Matzek said in March 2020. “I feel comfortable now. I feel that is over with. I’m just ready to start this next chapter of my career.”
He was sent all the way down to short-season Single-A in June 2015. He had surgery at the end of the year and then pitched all of 2016 in the minors, owning a 6.75 ERA in 33 appearances — all in relief. He walked 33 batters in 26 2/3 innings. The Rockies cut him after the season.
Working his way back to the big leagues
Matzek latched on with two different organizations in hopes of reviving his career. He signed a minor league deal with the White Sox in 2017 but was released in March and did not play that season.
Matzek told The Denver Post that he nearly quit baseball as he tried to continue his career, and only his wife, Lauren, kept pushing him.
“In 2017, when I wasn’t getting picked up by anybody, I was back home in California, playing catch,” Matzek said. “Or rather, I was trying to play catch, throwing the ball all over the place. I basically told Lauren that I was done and that I was going to go back to school. I told her we were going to have to figure out the rest of our lives.”
Matzek said his wife told him that she believed in him and that he needed to keep trying to stay in the game.
Matzek signed another minor league deal early in 2018 with the Mariners but again was cut before the season.
He then signed with the Texas AirHogs of the independent American Association. He still struggled in 2018, but he also began to improve. He signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks in 2019 but was cut in May. He returned to the AirHogs on June 9.
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A conversation with AirHogs team president Billy Martin Jr. convinced Matzek to try a higher arm angle, according to The Denver Post.
Matzek said the change helped him to relax and that he began just to think about his pitching.
“That one little thing changed my command and my (velocity) — everything,” Matzek told the Post. “Then I just continued to throw, throw, throw. I think that got the yips out of me.”
The Braves purchased his contract on Aug. 15 and sent him to Double-A Mississippi before moving him up to Triple-A Gwinnett. Atlanta placed him on its Opening Day roster in 2020.
Braves’ relief ace
Matzek has made an impact in his return to the big leagues.
In 2020, he pitched to a 2.79 ERA and a 1.92 FIP in 29 innings. He struck out 35.5 percent of opposing batters and — perhaps most importantly — only walked 8.3 percent.
Coming off the COVID-19-shortened season with renewed confidence, Matzek continued to dazzle in 2021, pitching to a 2.57 ERA in 63 innings with a 3.20 FIP. The strikeout rate still was sterling at 29.2 percent and his walk rate a bit higher, but still manageable, at 14 percent.
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“He’s the reason we’re here. I mean, he just came up in all those clutch moments and, like, there’s just no describing,” NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario told MLB Network’s Heidi Watney through an interpreter after Game 6. “Every time we needed him he came up for us and he was the key for us out of the bullpen.”
So far this postseason, Matzek has pitched to a 1.74 ERA in 10 1/3 innings. He has allowed two runs on four hits and four walks with 17 strikeouts.
Saturday was the first time the 31-year-old Matzek pitched multiple innings this postseason, but he showed no issues pitching those scoreless frames and playing as crucial a role as anyone in getting Atlanta to the World Series.
Snitker said he remembered Matzek’s 2020 spring training when he was striking batters out but couldn’t remember his name. Now, not too many people will forget it.
“‘What was his name? He wasn’t on the list. Maybe we ought to bring this kid in here,'” Snitker said. “I have so much admiration for him, what he’s been through in his career. There’s another one, it hasn’t been easy for him, either, and he’s had to go back a bunch in order to come forward and how he’s handled all that just amazes me. Just the perseverance and everything this guy’s been through.”