Tyler Matzek's Improbable Journey to Invincibility in Atlanta

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The Braves erased 22 years of playoff ineptitude on Saturday thanks to a former first-round pick who crashed out of baseball just a few years ago.

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ATLANTA — In August of 2019, Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos got an email from his vice president of scouting, Dana Brown, suggesting the team sign a 28-year-old lefty out of independent ball. Also, the guy was recovering from the yips.

This idea made no sense. Even if the kid was any good, there were two weeks left in the minor league season. Why would they sign a dude who would be a free agent in two weeks?

Anthopoulos called Brown. “He pushed and he pushed and he pushed,” said Anthopoulos.

On Aug. 15, Atlanta signed Tyler Matzek to a two-year minor league deal. On Saturday, he got the six most important outs of the season.

“I think it’s paid off,” said Anthopoulos, champagne goggles pushed onto his forehead, NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONS T-shirt stinking of beer. His club had just finished off the Dodgers, 4–2, in Game 6 of the NLCS to capture Atlanta’s first pennant since 1999.  Left fielder Eddie Rosario, who hit .560 in the series, was still clutching the NLCS MVP trophy. But Anthopoulos wanted to talk about someone else.

“Not to take anything away from him, but Tyler Matzek—unbelievable,” he said. “Both of those guys could have been co-MVP.”

Reliever Luke Jackson had another idea. “He should get a giant backpack award,” he said. “I should be placed in there.”

Indeed, Matzek entered the game to clean up the mess Jackson had made. With a three-run lead, Jackson had allowed a double, a walk and another double. When manager Brian Snitker emerged from the dugout, Jackson felt only relief. “Thank you,” he told the skipper. “I can’t buy an out right now.” Besides, he knew who was on his way: “Tyler Nutsack,” Jackson said. “That’s what everyone calls him, because he’s got to drag those huge balls out to the mound every night.”

He does mean 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 routed Atlanta in Game 5. But on Saturday, when it seemed the game would slip away, that for a second straight year the team would choke away a 3–1 NLCS lead over the Dodgers, Snitker raised his left arm and called for the most unlikely man on the roster.

Tyler Matzek's Improbable Journey to Invincibility in Atlanta
© Provided by Sports Illustrated Tyler Matzek lets loose a roar of celebration after escaping the most nerve-wracking jam of Atlanta’s season. Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

Only when the game was over did Matzek, who turned 31 last week, allow himself to reflect on everything that came before it. A little more than four years ago, he was crying as he told his wife, Lauren, that he was done with baseball. The Rockies had taken him out of Capistrano Valley (Calif.) High School with the 11th pick of the 2009 draft, paid him $3.9 million—and immediately set about changing everything that had made him the 11th pick. Matzek had been training for two years with a six-pound women’s shot put. Colorado took it away.

“When you’re drafted in the first round, they treat you like fine china, and they don’t want you to break at all, and so they fear anything that you’ve done before is going to possibly hurt you,” Matzek said. He took to wearing weighted wristbands in his hotel room and sneaking to a local park so he could throw his shot put against an oak tree. For years, he battled his mechanics and his penchant for feeling sorry for himself. When he rolled an ankle in spring training 2015 and found himself suddenly unable to throw strikes, he quit on himself.

“All I had was fear,” he said. “That put me into a freeze mindset, and that’s what led to the yips.”

The Rockies demoted him to the minors, where he walked 16.5 hitters per nine innings. The next 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 in the legs so many times that Kyle started firing the ball back at Tyler’s body in frustration. Finally, after the 2016 season, Colorado released Matzek. The White Sox signed him and released him. Then, teams stopped calling.

The registration deadline for community colleges was in late September. In early September, Tyler told Lauren he couldn’t keep going. Lauren told him she would support him no matter what he chose, but she 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 that this is going to take, then I can, too,” he said. 

He heard about a former Navy SEAL named Jason Kuhn who had himself developed a case of the yips in college. Matzek flew to Tennessee to spend a week working with him.

When he came back, everything was different. After a bad game, Lauren says, Tyler was once inconsolable. Now, she says, “It’s like, I sucked tonight, not like, I just suck.”

In 2018, he signed a minor league deal with the Mariners. They released him. Matzek caught on with the Texas AirHogs of the American Association. “A high school team could have beat that team,” said his stepfather, David Briney. He recalled watching games at 5,000-seat AirHogs Stadium, outside Dallas, with “40 fans in the stands.”

“Forty?” said Matzek. “Forty would be a great crowd there.”

Tyler and Lauren and their 15-pound terrier mix lived in a friend’s RV in a trailer park. In 2019, he signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks. They released him—on the last day of a road trip, so he had to ride the bus 10 hours back with a bunch of guys who weren’t his teammates anymore.

But through it all, he could feel himself getting stronger mentally. The stuff had always been there, and he started to believe he could direct it. He no longer felt terrified on the mound. And when Brown emailed Anthopoulos, Matzek was ready.

Tyler Matzek's Improbable Journey to Invincibility in Atlanta
© Provided by Sports Illustrated Tyler Matzek pitches during the eighth inning of Game 6. Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports

He was ready, too, when Snitker motioned for him on Saturday. The tying run strode to the plate in the form of Albert Pujols, a future inner-circle Hall of Famer who’s on the roster for his ability to hit lefties. With runners on second and third and no outs, Matzek knew he needed a strikeout. An out that did not advance the runners would give him room to pop the next guy up or even allow a sacrifice fly. So he pumped four-seamers and sliders down and in. Pujols swung through a slider in the dirt for strike three.

“Then it was just, alright, got the first guy,” Matzek said. “Now let’s go after the second guy, now let’s go after the third guy.”

The second guy was pinch hitter Steven Souza, who was 0 for the series. Matzek got him looking. The third guy was Mookie Betts, the Dodgers’ best hitter.

“He is so hard to strike out,” said Anthopoulos.

Matzek hurled a 97-mph four-seamer down the heart of the plate. Betts watched it go. Matzek threw the same pitch again. Betts watched it, too. Matzek threw another one, a little harder and a little higher. Betts swung and missed. He turned and gaped at the ball, safely nestled in catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s glove.

Matzek pumped his fist so hard he pirouetted off the mound and into the dugout. The pitcher’s spot was due up fifth in the bottom of the seventh; he listened as pitching coach Rick Kranitz persuaded Snitker to let Matzek hit for himself so he could throw another inning.

“I was more excited about that!” Matzek said. “I was trying on different batting gloves.”

Alas, d’Arnaud struck out to end the frame. Matzek struck out Corey Seager on three pitches, then got Trea Turner and Will Smith to ground to third.

Three outs later, as the Atlanta players sprayed one another in champagne, Jackson found Matzek and planted a kiss on him. (Cheek? Lips? “Whatever I could get at the time,” Jackson said. “Whatever’s available.”) Matzek jogged back out to the field and embraced his family. And by the home dugout, Anthopoulos thanked Brown. 

Every year, in August, the GM forwards the VP that initial email to remind him of his good judgment. On Saturday, as they gazed toward the World Series, no one needed reminding. 

More MLB Coverage:• Pearls Before Swing: Meet the Man Behind the Joctober BlingGive the Braves Some Praise• The Strike Zone Isn’t the Problem• Rookie Garrett Whitlock Emerging As Lockdown Red Sox Reliever

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