When Braves manager Brian Snitker came up on the hill on Saturday night to take the ball from Luke Jackson and hand it over to Tyler Matzek, it felt like the game – and maybe the series – was in abeyance.
It was the culmination of the seventh inning, and after Atlanta knocked out the Dodgers-hitters all night in game 6 of the NLCS, Atlanta had given Los Angeles an opening. A leadoff double from Chris Taylor, a walk to Cody Bellinger and an RBI double from AJ Pollock made it a 4-2 game. Suddenly, the Dodgers were a base hit away from tying the game with anyone.
Enter Matzek. The flamethrowing southpaw hit Albert Pujols, Steven Souza Jr. and Mookie Betts, stranding the tieing run (pollock) at second base and leaving the Braves six outs from a World Series berth.
Matzek said after the game that he hoped to at least hit the first stroke. He felt he could afford to forego a sacrificial fly and possibly go with the guide, if he could only find out that first.
“Luke went in there, he was struggling a bit, an unfortunate hit that went down the left field line (Taylor’s double). He’s got me out of those situations a lot this season so it was time for me to pay him back. “Said Matzek.” It was just being aggressive and did it for Luke to try and keep those runs from scoring for him. “
MORE: Dodgers vs. Braves Bottom Line, Results
After that he wasn’t finished. Matzek also hit the eighth inning, beating the first batter he faced before rolling a pair of groundouts in a 1-2-3 frame. He put the ball and pennant closer in Will Smith’s hands.
After a 1-2-3 ninth from Smith, Matzek and the Braves were on their way to the World Series.
This probably wasn’t a future that many matzek saw a few years ago. Before the 2020 season, he had not appeared in a game in the big league since 2015. He had to work his way back from a case of Yips toiling in the minor and independent leagues before returning to the majors with the Braves.
First round draft pick
Matzek graduated from Mission Viejo, Calif. High school and was recognized as one of the top prep arms in the 2009 MLB Draft class.
Baseball America placed him 9th overall in the class. The Rockies decided he would be their man and put him 11th overall.
With the minors, he showed immediate promise. Matzek ended his first professional season of 2010 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 school student who was still learned his trade. Baseball America listed him as No. 23 overall on its 2010 Prospectus rankings.
Matzek continued to struggle with minor control issues but made his MLB debut with Colorado in 2014. He achieved a 6-11 record and 4.05 ERA in 117 2/3 innings with 91 strikeouts and only 44 walks. He started in the major leagues in 2015 and got an ERA of 4.09 in 22 innings, but he went 19 and struck out only 15. He was sent back to the miners on May 8.
MORE: MLB Playoff Schedule 2021
Over time, according to MLB.com, Matzek discovered that his problem was performance anxiety, commonly referred to in baseball as yips.
“If you throw it behind the racket and have no idea where the ball is going as a left-handed player, that’s usually a pretty good indicator that something is wrong,” said Matzek in March 2020. “I’m comfortable with it now. I’m just ready to begin this next chapter in my career. “
He was sent to Single-A through the short season in June 2015. He was operated on at the end of the year and then placed in the minors throughout 2016, with a 6.75 ERA in 33 appearances – all in relief. He went 33 batters in 26 2/3 innings. The Rockies cut him off after the season.
Working your way back to the big leagues
Matzek joined two different organizations to revitalize his career. He signed a minor league deal with the White Sox in 2017 but was fired in March and didn’t play that season.
Matzek told The Denver Post that he almost quit baseball when he tried to continue his career, and only his wife, Lauren, pushed him further.
“In 2017, when nobody came to pick me up, I was at home in California playing tag,” said Matzek. “Or rather, I was trying to play catch and toss the ball all over the place. Basically, I was telling Lauren I was done and I was going back to school. I told her we had to find out.” Rest of our lives. “
Matzek said his wife told him that she believed in him and that he had to keep trying to stay in the game.
Matzek signed another minor league contract with the Mariners in early 2018, but was again terminated before the season.
He then signed with the Texas AirHogs of the independent American Association. He was still struggling in 2018, but he was also starting to improve. He signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks in 2019 but was terminated in May. He returned to the AirHogs on June 9th.
MORE: Why Yordan Alvarez’s ALCS MVP performance shouldn’t come as a surprise
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 relax and he started just thinking about his pitching.
“That one little thing changed my command and my (speed) – everything,” Matzek told the post. “Then I just kept throwing, throwing, throwing. I think that made me shout.”
The Braves bought his contract on August 15 and sent him to Double-A Mississippi before promoting him to Triple-A Gwinnett. Atlanta put it on its opening day list in 2020.
Braves’ ace of relief
Matzek made a big difference on his return to the big leagues.
In 2020, he put up a 2.79 ERA and a 1.92 FIP in 29 innings. He knocked out 35.5 percent of the opposing thugs and – perhaps most importantly – only walked 8.3 percent.
Matzek ended the season shortened by COVID-19 with renewed confidence and continued to dazzle in 2021, hitting an ERA of 2.57 with a FIP of 3.20 in 63 innings. The strikeout rate was still 29.2 percent and his walk rate was a bit higher at 14 percent, but still manageable.
MORE: Eddie Rosario shines as the latest midseason acquisition from Braves to deliver
In 2021, according to Fangraphs, only southpaw AJ Minter had a higher regular season WAR among the Braves reliefs, and Matzek’s added 1.92 odds was the best on the team.
“He’s the reason we’re here. I mean, he just showed up in all these clutch moments and there’s just no description,” NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario told MLB Network’s Heidi Watney through an interpreter after Game 6. ” Every time we needed him, he came for us and he was the key to us from the bullpen. “
So far this postseason, Matzek has served 10 1/3 innings to a 1.74 ERA. He has allowed two runs with four hits and four walks with 17 strikeouts.
Saturday marked the first time 31-year-old Matzek put up multiple innings this postseason, but he showed no problems with those goalless frames and played as vital a role as anyone in getting Atlanta to the World Series.
Snitker said he remembered Matzek’s 2020 spring training session when he hit thugs but couldn’t remember his name. Not too many people will forget it now.
“‘What was his name? He wasn’t on the list. Maybe we should bring this kid here,'” Snitker said. “I admire him so much for what he’s been through in his career. There’s another one, it wasn’t easy for him either, and he had to go back a lot to get forward and how he handled everything.” That just amazes me. Just the persistence and everything this guy has been through. “