AirHogs Tyler Matzek’s Journey to the Atlanta Braves| Breaking News Updates

AirHogs Tyler Matzek’s Journey to the Atlanta Braves

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HOUSTON – Atlanta’s most essential reliever these playoffs was so useless three years ago that he couldn’t even find a job in baseball. So he bought a Facebook ad and landed with an independent league team in Texas.

He lived in an RV that summer, in 2018, and cashed a paycheck of about $ 400 every two weeks, not knowing if he would win or go bankrupt.

The story of Tyler Matzek’s rise from the Texas AirHogs to the World Series features international relations, a former member of the Navy SEALs, and security guards. Now, it also includes appearances almost nightly on the October stage with the Braves. When the stocky 6-foot-3 southpaw stepped into the World Series opener here on Tuesday night, it was his 10th relief appearance in Atlanta’s 11 playoff games.

His biggest outing came in the decisive sixth game of the National League championship series. He won by successively withdrawing Albert Pujols, Steven Souza Jr. and Mookie Betts. He had entered the game with Atlanta clinging to a 4-2 lead over Los Angeles in the seventh inning. The runners were second and third without an out, but he left them stranded.

“Persistence is something I’ve never seen in 52 years in baseball,” said John McLaren, former Seattle Mariners manager who coached in seven major league organizations, looked for another and was the skipper who welcomed Matzek to the AirHogs in 2018.

“You really can’t appreciate the situation unless you know where he was,” McLaren said.

The Colorado Rockies selected Matzek in the first round – 11th overall – in the 2009 draft from Capistrano Valley High School in Orange County, Calif. He went through the Rockies system, made 20 appearances (19 starts) in 2014, his first season, and started his home opener in 2015. But in just five starts in 2015, he walked 19 batters. in 22 innings and was sent to the miners.

He had been struck by a case of “yips”, where an athlete becomes unusually nervous or tense during a crucial action of the sport. In his case, it was a sudden and inexplicable loss of the ability to throw strikes.

Matzek never pitched for the Rockies again. He languished in minors for the remainder of 2015 and all of 2016. He went to spring training with the Chicago White Sox in 2017, but was released in late March.

“It took a while,” said Matzek. “It changed my state of mind. I always tell people that we are afraid in our lives and that we have three options: Run away, fight or freeze. The yips is, you choose to freeze. You freeze all that fear and your body stops functioning when you throw the ball. You can’t fly – you’re thrown in the game and you’re going to throw. “

So, while he was sitting in 2017, he chose to “fight”. Through a connection with Michael McKenry, Matzek’s friend and former Rocky Mountain catcher, he enlisted the help of Jason Kuhn, a former Navy SEALs member whose own pitcher career was cut short by a case of then yips. that he was in Middle Tennessee. State. Kuhn now runs a business called Stonewall Solutions in Nashville that goes to high schools and colleges to plan training programs for sports teams.

“Yips is not something you think about far away,” Kuhn said. “You have to go train him.”

Kuhn likens it to “pulling a hamstring in your brain”. The duo worked together for a while in Nashville, then continued to work over the phone and with worksheets that gave Matzek questions to answer regarding fundamentals focused on things like mental toughness and a state of mind. team-oriented mindset.

“It was all mental,” said Matzek, 31. “I wasn’t even close to the strike zone. There was a point where I was playing wrestling with a guy, I had him stand by the fence and throw the ball at him, or try to throw it at him, and I missed 15, 20, 30 feet. The ball hit the ground, he caught it and sent it back to me.

“I just realized that the more I throw it badly, the closer I get to throwing it correctly. So I continued. “

In the winter of 2017-18, with his work with Kuhn continuing, Matzek said, he paid some $ 3,000 to play in an independent trial league based in Palm Springs, Calif.

“I’m not kidding, we had guys who had never played baseball before in this league,” said Matzek. “We had soccer players trying to play baseball for the first time in their lives and everything. Some guys were security guards in their normal lives and just wanted to go out and try.

“I paid three thousand dollars for this for a month just trying to start playing ball again.”

The Mariners saw him, signed him, but then released him at the end of spring training.

Andy McKay was Seattle’s director of player development and had a history with Matzek in the Colorado organization. Part of McKay’s experience is as a mental skills trainer. He told Matzek the Mariners didn’t have a place for him in the minors, but would keep him in extended spring practice if the pitcher wanted. However, he encouraged Matzek to play independent ball instead, as Matzek needed to throw competitively and in front of fans, not in deserted backfields.

So Matzek took out the Facebook ad – “I did it myself,” he said, meaning he didn’t have an agent involved. The announcement led to a one-season engagement from Billy Martin Jr., general manager of the AirHogs. Matzek borrowed the RV from McKenry and drove from Nashville to Texas.

“It was brand new, maybe two or three years,” Matzek said of the vehicle. “There was excellent air conditioning, honestly. I just kept the blinds down the whole time. It’s hot there, 120, 130 during the day.

The AirHogs had signed a partnership agreement with the Chinese national team, which “sent over 30, 40 guys to learn American baseball to prepare for the Olympics,” said Matzek. The situation created a language barrier but ultimately led to friendships.

McLaren said Matzek’s situation was “demons, birds on his shoulder talking to him, real courage and hard work.” He continued, “It was great for the Chinese players to be around him. He rooted for his teammates, was aggressive, ticked all the boxes until he had physical talent while staying low.

Matzek said, “There were times when I was throwing the ball at 85, 86 miles an hour, just lobbing the ball in there, trying to throw some strikes. And it wasn’t pretty. Not good.”

But it was getting better. Eventually, Dana Brown, Atlanta’s vice president for scouting, harassed general manager Alex Anthopoulos towards the end of the 2019 season to sign him. Now, Anthopoulos said, he forwards this original email to Brown every year around the time Atlanta signed Matzek because, “I can’t thank Dana enough. If he doesn’t fight for him and send scouts to see him, he’s not there.

That’s why when Matzek stoked Betts to put out the Dodgers’ latest threat on Saturday night in Georgia, so many people were so happy.

“Absolutely unbelievable,” said Freddie Freeman of Atlanta, who was Matzek’s first strikeout in the majors in 2015.

At home in Phoenix, McLaren watched as he made contact with some of his former players from China, receiving texts and emails that read “Tyler was awesome!” and “Three strikeouts in one set, boy, that’s huge.”

“They’re on the computer regardless of the time of the game, they’re following it there,” McLaren said.

And in Nashville, Kuhn said he looked on with tears in his eyes.

“It was just gratifying beyond measure to see him rewarded and succeed,” said Kuhn. “I told him when we first met you are at a crossroads. No matter what you choose to do, you want to look back on that moment and be proud of who you are and what you choose.

Sometimes the longest journeys can be the most rewarding. Someday a pitcher is an AirHog. Another, he faces Betts with the World Series on the line.

“I know,” Matzek said. “Crazy, right? “

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