Who else? Minter, Matzek fuel ATL 'pen in G6

Pair of Braves left-handers caps NLCS with more stellar relief vs. Dodgers

October 26th, 2021

ATLANTA -- was electrically charged, the moment coursing through him. For all of three steps he held it inside, held it together, as the third-largest crowd in Truist Park history roared around him. Then, the 31-year-old clenched his left fist and screamed, disburdening himself of emotion.

Matzek leaped into the air, higher than seemed natural, and slammed his fist once again like a hammer. The lefty reliever had just recorded three of the most important outs in Braves history, striking out all three batters he faced in the seventh inning to strand the tying runs in scoring position during Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

“Pure joy,” was how Matzek described the moment.

All postseason, Matzek has been Atlanta's circuit breaker, its fail-safe, but never more so than in its 4-2 victory over the Dodgers on Saturday night to win the NL pennant. He and fellow lefty combined to record a dozen of the game’s most crucial outs, preventing the specter of a Los Angeles comeback from metamorphosing into reality.

After Minter delivered two perfect innings in relief of starter Ian Anderson, Luke Jackson entered and allowed a double, a walk and another double -- that one placing the tying runs on base. Having seen enough, Braves manager Brian Snitker called upon Matzek, who had appeared in each of Atlanta’s first eight postseason games before earning a night of rest in Thursday's Game 5.

Matzek was ready. First up was Albert Pujols, who chased a two-strike slider below the zone. Next was Steven Souza Jr., who stared at a 99 mph fastball near the outside corner. When Mookie Betts came to the plate and took a first-pitch fastball right down the middle, catcher Travis d’Arnaud decided there was little reason to call for anything else. Matzek’s second pitch popped at 98 mph, again down the middle. His next was also 98 in nearly the same spot.

Betts swung through it.

“That’s huge,” d’Arnaud said. “That’s special. An MVP, multiple World Series winner -- for [Matzek] to attack him with three fastballs and strike him out, that’s incredible.”

In doing so, Matzek became the first pitcher in postseason history to strike out three consecutive batters in the seventh inning or later with multiple men in scoring position. He joined Braves closer John Rocker in 1999 as the only relievers to strike out 11 batters with runners in scoring position in a single postseason. Matzek also effectively resolved the crisis, delivering Atlanta to within a whisper of its first pennant since '99.

But there was still more work to do. Snitker wanted three more outs from his most trusted postseason reliever. And so Matzek tried his best to remain focused in the dugout, guarding against an adrenaline drop before coming back out for the eighth and recording three more outs.

All told, Matzek faced 21 batters in the NLCS and retired 18 of them. The Dodgers hit .056 against him.

“I said I would like to cut that MVP thing up and give him a little piece of it, because that guy was just spectacular the whole series,” Snitker said.

“In my opinion,” Minter added, “Matzek was the MVP.”

While the award in question went rather deservingly to outfielder Eddie Rosario, few would have quibbled with a different outcome -- certainly not many of the 43,060 at Truist Park, where fans roared their increasingly thunderous approval every time Matzek delivered a pitch. The MVP Award could have rightly gone to several members of the Braves’ bullpen, including Minter (who tossed eight scoreless innings in the series) and closer Will Smith (who earned two relief wins and the Game 6 save).

But for the well-traveled Matzek, this moment was different. This moment was almost unimaginable three summers ago, when he was pitching for the Texas AirHogs of the independent American Association of Professional Baseball, living out of a borrowed RV as he attempted to figure out why his control -- once good enough to make him a first-round Draft pick in 2009 -- had abandoned him. Matzek toiled. He worked. He questioned himself. He eventually did enough to gain a toehold back in affiliated baseball, which he used to force his way onto Atlanta’s roster in July 2020.

Barely three years removed from the darkest part of that journey, Matzek stood on the Truist Park infield in a beer-soaked T-shirt as he recalled all the roads that led him to this point.

“It was always the dream,” Matzek said. “It was always at the end of the tunnel, the light at the end of the tunnel. The goal is to win the World Series. Just to get to that point, it’s what I was dreaming about.”