Castoff to clutch: Matzek's mettle key in G1

October 17th, 2021

ATLANTA -- Back in the summer of 2018, was traveling around to locales like Grand Prairie, Texas, Fargo, N.D., and Winnipeg, Manitoba; the left-hander was walking roughly one out of every six batters he faced while pitching in front of smatterings of local independent league fans. His future as a professional baseball player was dubious.

Barely three years later, Matzek was working in front of a sold-out Truist Park crowd, bullying upper-90s fastballs past the likes of Mookie Betts and Trea Turner. His seventh-inning escape act on Saturday night proved to be one of the defining moments that made Austin Riley’s walk-off single -- and the Braves’ resulting 3-2 win over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series -- possible.

“I’m just so fortunate to have made it back here, for the Braves to have taken a chance on me,” Matzek said, “and trusted me in situations like this.”

In part because he did not want to overtax starting pitcher Max Fried, and in part because of his faith in Matzek, Braves manager Brian Snitker turned to his hardest-throwing pitcher to open the seventh inning. Almost immediately, trouble struck, when Chris Taylor hit a bloop double to shallow right field just out of the reach of first baseman Freddie Freeman. Austin Barnes followed with a sacrifice bunt, putting Taylor on third base with one out and a pair of perennial All-Stars due to bat.

Rather than pitch around Betts, Matzek attacked him with a series of upper-90s fastballs, throwing each one higher than the last until the 2018 American League MVP Award winner popped a pitch into foul ground. Two down. Next up was Turner, who fouled off a 99 mph heater -- one of the 13 fastest pitches Matzek had thrown in his Major League career, according to Statcast -- before striking out on what Fried described as “a wipeout slider.”

“God, was that huge,” Snitker said. “I guess adrenaline’s kicking in when I saw 99.”

Turner was nearly as impressed, crediting Matzek for showing him “kind of a different look” low in the zone, compared to prior matchups defined by high fastballs.

“You could tell he was into the moment, that’s for sure,” Snitker said. “He elevated his game right there.”

None of this is completely new for Matzek, who produced a 2.57 ERA during the regular season, striking out 77 batters in 63 innings while mostly pitching in high-leverage situations. Over the course of the season, Matzek compiled a win probability added figure of 1.92, which ranked second on Atlanta’s staff behind only Charlie Morton.

This is clearly who Matzek is now, though it’s not who he’s always been. A first-round Draft pick of the Rockies in 2009, Matzek flamed out as a starter before bouts of wildness and a battle with anxiety conspired to force him out of baseball. In 2017, Matzek did not pitch at all.

Eventually, he attempted to return, signing on with the Texas AirHogs of the American Association. Living out of a borrowed RV, Matzek walked 66 batters in 88 2/3 innings in 2018, but he threw hard and showed he was capable of missing bats.

It was enough for the D-backs to sign him to a Minor League deal, though not enough for Matzek to stick. So he went back to Texas early in 2019, still battling his control but striking out an inflated 15.6 batters per nine innings. This time, the Braves took notice, signing him to a Minor League deal, nurturing him through a rocky start to his tenure and then finally calling him up during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Since then, Matzek has not only been one of the NL's best relievers, but one of its most reliable, appearing in all five of Atlanta’s postseason games in 2021.

“I’ve got 100 percent confidence in Tyler,” Fried said, echoing the thoughts of Snitker and Riley. “Obviously, he’s been extremely important to our success.”

In that sense and so many others, Matzek is a long way from the mounds of Grand Prairie, Fargo or Winnipeg, a long way from not knowing what his baseball future might hold.

“It takes a lot for an organization to go ahead and send a scout out to where I was, and to pick me up in the middle of the season and then trust me in the last couple years in their bullpen,” Matzek said. “I mean, I feel like this was always the goal, but it was never right there. It was definitely a grind to get here.”