For the first time this millennium, Atlanta will host a World Series game. It took every guy on the Braves roster and then some to get there. But in a very real way, it especially took Tyler Matzek having the best relief appearance of his life in a decisive NLCS Game 6 against the reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
With runners on second and third and no outs, he came in and crushed the Dodgers’ spirit: Two innings, no runs, no hits, four strikeouts. One trip to the World Series.
“I mean, mind-blowing,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said before Game 1. “Has there been a better two innings of relief?”
His ninth of what has now been 10 appearances this postseason, that performance catapulted the 31-year-old reliever in his second season with the Braves to cult hero status, complete with a cinematic backstory.
By now baseball fans have heard about the first-round pick who spent parts of two seasons with the Colorado Rockies while pushing through anxiety; developed the yips, baseball’s’ most dreaded and mysterious affliction; got cut by a handful of clubs without making it back to the majors; sought out a former Navy SEAL to relearn how to pitch; lived in a trailer while playing for an independent league team that served as a training site for Chinese national players; relearned how to pitch well; and finally was scouted by the Braves.
After a five-year gap, he made it back to the bigs last year. And now that he’s succeeding on a national stage, the people who helped him put it back together are reveling in watching all his hard work pay off.
The life coach facing down his own yips demons
Among the surely sold-out crowd at Truist Park for Friday’s Game 3 will be Jason Kuhn. He’ll travel from Gallatin, Tennessee, not to cheer on a star or a starter or even a whole team. Kuhn is going to watch Tyler Matzek.
“Can't wait to see him pitch live in a World Series,” he said by phone recently. “It’ll be a dream come true.”
Kuhn tears up a little just thinking about what it means to see Matzek pitch at his best in these high-pressure situations. He knows how far Matzek has come — he’s seen it firsthand and he’s felt it himself, as much as anyone can, anyway.
Back in 2002, Kuhn was a pretty good relief pitcher who thought the velocity he gained going into his senior year of college gave him a chance to get drafted. Not a high pick or anything like that — not like Tyler who was chosen 11th overall in the 2009 draft — but just a chance to play professionally.
“And then that spring, I got the yips really bad. I threw six wild pitches in a single inning. And the record for the NCAA was seven in a game,” he said. “That was the last competitive game of baseball I ever played.”
He became a Navy SEAL, calling it a “path to redemption from falling short of my potential in baseball,” parlayed the mental skills he learned in the service into 14 principles applicable to sports and corporate life, and used those to form a company that coaches clients on “the fundamentals of mindset and team culture.” He taught himself to throw again and befriended some former big leaguers, including Michael McKenry, who overlapped with Matzek in the Rockies system.
Which is how Matzek — on the verge of retiring until his wife, Lauren, convinced him to give baseball one last chance — ended up calling Kuhn to see if he could help. They talked, then months went by, then Matzek called again.
“I'm all in,” Matzek told Kuhn. “Let's do this thing.”
The yips end careers. They can be self-perpetuating and stigmatized. Athletes avoid even saying the word, lest they let even the fear of it take root in their mind. Although players have overcome them in the past, there’s no known cure. Without a better option, Matzek flew to Tennessee to start from scratch.
“The guy is all heart,” Kuhn said. “And he decided that he was going to do it, and retreat was not going to be an option, and we were going to use every resource available to get this thing done.”
First, Matzek counted the stitches on the seams to center his focus while they played catch at a comfortable distance. Once that felt good, Kuhn said, “we did some really unorthodox things to try to throw him off his game or try to see if something would bring [the yips] back.”
Unorthodox like blasting a siren while Matzek threw to live batters on the field at Middle Tennessee State University. Or like having Kuhn charge at him on the mound. Or like playing video clips of Matzek’s old appearances in affiliated ball over the bullhorn. All to battle test Matzek’s anxieties.
He was there for a week, and then worked through a more academic curriculum from afar.
“Eventually our training came to a culmination,” Kuhn said. “He got back on with the Diamondbacks and then was released, and even then he didn't give up. He went and he found the team at the Texas AirHogs and used all the resources necessary.”
Kuhn is careful to not take credit, but he said Matzek’s success has provided a satisfying conclusion to the chapter in his own life that started when the yips claimed his baseball career.
The translator slash pitching coach
Sometimes Kevin Joseph, now the president of a property management company, will get messages from former members of the Chinese national baseball team about Tyler Matzek.
“They're all so excited,” he said by phone recently. “They're wondering if they did anything to help him. Everyone wants to be a part of the story somehow.”
Before he worked in real estate, but after a stint in the St. Louis Cardinals system, Joseph was the Chinese translator-slash-pitching coach for the indy league Texas AirHogs.
The AirHogs needed a Chinese translator because team owner Donnie Nelson — of the Dallas Mavericks — had paved the way for a curious experiment via business dealings in China: 30 aspiring members of the Chinese national team would join forces with about a dozen American players to bone up on their baseball.
The resulting play was not especially smooth sailing.
“We would break so many bats that we’d pull into a town and I had to ask the bus driver to go to a sporting goods store to purchase wood bats so we would have enough to play our game,” Joseph said.
But it wasn’t all bad.
“One guy played all nine positions in one game. It was just bizarre.”
Into that environment, a beaten down but determined Matzek was attempting a comeback at 28, 10 years removed from when the Rockies had given him a $3.9 million bonus.
“You could see somebody who was a major-league player, who was a first-round draft pick, in that kind of situation, being greatly annoyed by teammates that were at a lower level,” Joseph said. “But he wasn't like that at all. He was a really great teammate.”
It wasn’t just that Matzek never complained about the playing conditions, or accommodations, or unreliable defense behind him in games. With the lessons from Kuhn bolstering his confidence, Matzek took it upon himself to coach a young Chinese player through a case of the yips.
His mental and emotional state was ready for affiliated ball. “It was just a matter of fine-tuning his mechanics,” Joseph said.
In an effort to understand what could have changed for the former top prospect, Joseph started watching YouTube clips of Matzek pitching in high school and early in his career with Colorado. He was struck by how easy and natural the motion seemed. The yips can rob a player of that second-nature fluidity. But Joseph thought that perhaps they could reverse-engineer it, rebuild the delivery that had first gotten him to the major leagues by identifying what was different about it at the time.
He approached Matzek in his next bullpen session and showed him screenshots on his phone, juxtaposing the more fluid motion from years before with his most recent start for the AirHogs.
“Here’s where your arm was then, here’s where your arm is now,” Joseph told him. Just that simple.
For whatever reason, it clicked. Matzek started tinkering to get back his old form and finally become the pitcher he was supposed to be.
“It really was in a matter of weeks,” Joseph said. “His velocity was way up and he was back to dominating.”
Dominating, that is, in indy ball. Now he just needed another chance.
“There’s no quit in Tyler,” Joseph said.
The scouting director who pushed
After every big game this postseason, Dana Brown goes down to the Braves clubhouse, hugs Matzek, and tells him he’s proud of him, keep it up.
“We're kind of attached in that way now,” Brown said.
Brown, the Braves VP of scouting, likes his staff to keep tabs on former first-rounders. It’s a way of honing what works and what doesn’t in pre-draft evaluations. Who pans out, and who doesn’t. So he sort of remembered Matzek when an agent called to convince Brown he was worth another look.
Brown had heard stories like that, a talented guy flames out and resurfaces a few years later in an unconventional way. If this was one of those, the Braves didn’t want to miss out. He sent a scout, Ron Marigny, and someone to capture and analyze Edgertronic video.
“Both angles were very important,” Brown said. And both angles agreed: This guy had upside. So Brown wrote an email to Anthopoulos laying it all out. But the GM wasn’t sold. It was so close to the end of the 2019 season, maybe they could just wait till next spring.
“And that's when I started to push,” Brown said.
“You're gonna lose this guy if you do that,” he told Anthopoulos. “This is a left-hander, former first-rounder, really good arm strength. He's really starting to put it together. And it sounds like this is the window if you want this guy.”
Brown and Anthopoulos go way back — all the way to the Expos.
“And he knows, I don't usually push unless I'm freaking out.”
So they offered Matzek a two-year minor-league deal and, well, you know how that’s worked out.
Every August since, Anthopoulos has sent Brown’s email back to him with a note: Thank god you kept pressing me to sign this guy.
It means a lot to Brown, “because you know, when you're on the road like we are 250+ nights a year, it's good to be reminded, hey, this is why you're out there grinding out days looking for players.”
Matzek has made a lot of people look good this month for their contributions to his incredible comeback; but they all realize it was his drive that made it happen.
“There was something with Matzek where he says, ‘You know what, I gotta keep going, I gotta keep pressing, I'm good enough to get back to the major leagues,’” Brown said. “I guess he wanted to prove that he could pitch in the major leagues and be good.”