NEW YORK – Left-hander Jon Matlack was high on himself after the Mets made him the fourth overall pick in the 1967 Major League Baseball Draft. It helped that opposing teams hated facing him while he attended West Chester Henderson High School in Pennsylvania.
But when he went to the Mets’ instructional league later that year, Matlack thought differently about his big league future once he saw 18 other pitchers in the organization. He noticed they were throwing harder.
“There was a point where I wondered what it was going to take to set myself apart from this other crowd,” Matlack said via telephone. “All of a sudden, I was in a school of minnows. Everybody was sort of the same.”
It was Wes Stock, the Mets’ roving Minor League pitching instructor, who convinced Matlack he had the talent to be in the big leagues. One of the biggest things Stock taught him was to stay in shape.
“[Stock] said, ‘When we are running sprints or laps or leg lifts or whatever, do a couple of extra,’” Matlack remembered. “I took it to heart and I caught a lot of flack from my teammates for being the brown-nosing guy. [Stock] also said, ‘It’s OK to get beat, but don't be too tired to compete.’”
Matlack stayed in shape and his confidence was at its peak by 1971, when he received the callup to the Majors late in the year. The Mets already had a dynamic duo in Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman in their rotation. The duo became a productive trio when Matlack joined the rotation in ‘72 after the team traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels.
Matlack had a season to remember, becoming the National League Rookie of the Year and leading the team in Wins Above Replacement (6.1, according to Baseball Reference). Matlack would go on to win 82 games and an All-Star Game MVP (1975) during his seven seasons in New York before spending the final six years of his career with the Rangers.
“I’m proud of my career with the Mets,” Matlack said. “Looking back at it with the way they look at stats today, I probably pitched a lot better than I thought I did,” he said. “We were a pitching-based organization. With Seaver and Koozie with me, nobody wanted to be the odd-man out. If Tommy was pitching a good game, Koozie was looking to do the same. I was looking to do the same. ... It led to everybody stepping up their game a little bit.”
Matlack’s locker was placed between Seaver and Koosman, and Matlack learned a lot from the pair. Seaver taught Matlack about conditioning, the amount of sleep to get and the scientific approach to the game. Koosman, a fellow left-hander, would give Matlack a scouting report on what to throw against certain hitters.
“It was good to have those two guys on your side,” Matlack said.
In 1973, Matlack was an integral part of the pennant-winning Mets. He won 14 games and struck out a career-high 205 batters. It looked like his season would come to an end earlier that year. On May 8, a line drive off the bat of Braves shortstop Marty Perez hit Matlack on the forehead and fractured his skull. If the incident occurred today, where concussion protocols are more advanced and such injuries are taken more seriously, Matlack would have been out for the season. But in ‘73, Matlack was back in action 11 days later and pitched six scoreless innings against the Pirates.
“I’m glad I was in the era I was in,” Matlack said. “There is way more caution today. I firmly believe had it not been raining, had I not overthrown the pitch and lost sight of the ball on the way to the plate, I never would have got hit. I think if you see it, your body is either going to defend itself and get out of the way, catch it or deflect it. In reality, I’m glad it happened the way it happened, because it didn’t give me time to dwell on the injury.”
Matlack would later put on a show in the postseason. He pitched a shutout in the National League Championship Series against the Reds and pitched three games in the World Series against the Athletics, losing two of them, but he had a strong 2.16 Fall Classic ERA. Matlack lost the seventh game, 5-2, by allowing home runs to Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson.
“I tip my hat to Campy. He hit a very nice curveball. It might have been a little wind-aided. Credit to him because he found a pitch he wanted and he was able to drive it,” Matlack said. “I hung a ball to Reggie that anybody could have hit out. When it left my hand, it was like, 'Oh, [man].' You knew by the way it came out of my hand it wasn’t going to be good.”
Fifty years after losing to Oakland, Matlack believes the Mets should have won their second championship in five seasons.
“It was an interesting postseason. The series against the Reds held a lot more attention for us as a team than the World Series did,” Matlack said. “In reality, I thought we outplayed the A’s the first six games, but we ended up 3-3 and they came to play on the last day.”