From Braves NLCS site, Tyler Matzek can see how far he’s come

Proof positive that the Braves Tyler Matzek has made it back: He delivers against the Miami Marlins during Game 1 of the National League Division Series. “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Proof positive that the Braves Tyler Matzek has made it back: He delivers against the Miami Marlins during Game 1 of the National League Division Series. “Curtis Compton /”

The defense behind Tyler Matzek only 14 months ago wasn’t quite as airtight as the one he currently enjoys with the Braves.

The guy who has become such an important cog in the Braves bullpen – like strike-out-Mike-Moustakas-with-two-outs-and-the-bases-loaded-in-the-11th-inning-of-a-scoreless-playoff-game important – was then a Texas AirHog.

Leaving all semblance of ego behind, Matzek had gone to the frontier of minor league baseball, an unaffiliated independent-league team, to find himself and the strike zone. He also found an outfit that had cut a deal with the Chinese National team, agreeing to field some of its players, regardless of ability. There’s a Kevin Costner vehicle somewhere in that scenario.

Kevin Joseph, the AirHogs pitching coach at the time, picks up the story from there:

"The Chinese National team had some guys who could compete at that level (Double-A-ish), but some guys who would struggle making a high school team in Texas. Tyler pitching in that kind of environment with that kind of defense behind him was a challenge.

"There was a game we had against St. Paul. Tyler came in to close, had two outs, a guy on second and third. Their batter hit the most routine fly ball to left field. It would have been right to the Chinese outfielder. He took two steps in, backpedaled two steps and fell down. He stuck his glove up and the ball bounced off his glove. We lost the game. Tyler gets the loss. They counted them as earned runs because we were on the road, called it a double.

“The adversity the AirHogs brought was problem.”

Matzek’s eccentric and redemptive Airhogs experience, which extended through parts of two seasons in 2018 and ’19, has a sort of coming-home feel to it now. For as he prepares for Monday’s Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers within the bubble of Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, he can practically see AirHogs Stadium seven miles away in the town of Grand Prairie.

Only a 10-minute drive between parks, but a thousand miles of experience separate the two. That trip he made from fallen first-round pick to independent-league reclamation project to Mr. Versatile in a division-winning Braves bullpen truly is one of great distance and greater faith.

Matzek now: He made 21 appearances in this 60-game season and led the majors with a dozen relief appearances of more than one inning. He was fifth among major league relievers in strikeouts, 43. His ERA was 2.79.

“Once you find out the story and then watching him out there, it’s incredible,” Braves reliever Will Smith said.

“What he’s doing out there in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning, it’s a nice weapon to have. And he’s just an even better guy, too. We all pull for him down there when he goes in, just because we’re so happy to see what he’s doing.”

Matzek then: Having come down with the golfing equivalent of the yips, the former 13th overall pick by Colorado in 2009 was all but washed up by 2016.

He made 19 starts for the Rockies as a rookie in 2014 and was still holding tightly to his promise. But by the next season, his control abandoned him – walking 19 in only 22 innings pitched. The problems went from mechanical to mental, as he developed deep anxiety over where the next pitch was going.

As Matzek told this spring: “When you’re throwing it behind hitters and have no idea where the ball is going, that’s usually a pretty good indicator something is wrong.”

After bouncing around various minor league stops and taking off 2017, he turned to the last resort, otherwise known as the Texas AirHogs. The name comes from a World War II term for pilots who think they own the sky. They are a member of the American Association, a far-flung league with franchises from Texas to Winnipeg, Sioux City to Fargo.

He first showed up in a borrowed RV and set up near the park, a moveable statement that he was prepared for a hard and humbling journey.

“Some guys come in defeated,” AirHogs GM Nate Guitierez said. “I think some guys, while great players on the cusp of returning, by the time they get to our place or our league have been so mentally defeated or beat up they don’t give themselves a chance. When Tyler came in, we had open and honest conversations with him about where he was, which was a ways away from where he thought he needed to be.”

Working mostly as a starter in 2018, Matzek blew no one away early. The stuff was obviously there. He just had to learn how to trust it again.

“You could see glimpses (of his talent),” Joseph said, “but it was a far cry from being the polished package he is now. I would say the odds were not good at the beginning.”

He didn’t start over just to quit, though. “I just said I don’t want to be out of baseball,” Matzek recalled this spring. “I’m going to keep going until I get back. I want to look back when I’m 70 or 80 years old and say I gave it everything I had. That’s really the only thing that is pushing me. I don’t want to look in the mirror and be upset with any decision that I made.”

Progressing far enough to get a quick once-over from Seattle, Matzek needed to return to Grand Prairie in 2019 to further fine tune. One more serving of the Spam of independent baseball. And what’s Chinese for, “Nice try, you’ll catch it next time?”

Billy Martin Jr. – son of the late, famed volatile manager of the same name and the AirHogs player-personnel guy - recalls a fateful video review that year that convinced Matzek to return to a higher arm angle he employed early in his career. Something clicked. Then fully a reliever, he began mowing his way through the late innings. Success bred confidence.

This short spring with the Braves, Matzek showed out. And continued at the restart to display the kind of undeniable stuff and presence evident this postseason in 3-1/3 innings of scoreless work. Eight strikeouts and, most tellingly, no walks over that span.

When the AirHogs executive branch talks about why they are so happy for Matzek, they eventually get around to the young clubhouse attendant story. It has nothing to do with how well Matzek can throw a baseball.

Seems that smack in the middle of the ’18 season, the AirHogs lost their clubbie. Hired on a spot was a high school kid to tend to the care and feeding of a ballclub.

“This kid had never done it before; he was overwhelmed,” Martin said.

“Tyler helped show him how to do laundry. He drove him to the store and helped him buy some of the stuff he needed to get. How many former major leaguers, how many former first-round picks, would do that?”

“You consider he didn’t plan to be a part of this organization for a very long time,” Gutierez said. “That was our goal for him – get him in and out as fast as possible so he could go chase his goal. When you think of someone who has that mentality to get in and get out, you don’t factor in a willingness to pull a kid aside and stay late to help him.”

The bond is strong between these AirHogs (and by the way Matzek is not the only one on the Braves roster – reliever Chris Martin threw nearly 37 innings for the Hogs in 2010).

And for at least another week the reminders are all around Matzek of how far he has come in making the otherwise short trip from Grand Prairie to Arlington.