In the summer of 2019, Atlanta Braves bench coach Walt Weiss was studying the organization’s minor-league scouting reports when he came across a familiar name.
“I was reading one of our box scores from our Double-A team in Jackson (Miss.), and it said, ‘Matzek,’ ” Weiss recalled. “I thought, ‘Well, that can’t be him.’ I hadn’t heard from Tyler in four or five years. I just assumed he wasn’t in the game anymore. But sure enough, it was him. Man, what an incredible journey.”
Monday night, Tyler Matzek, the Rockies’ first-round draft choice in 2009 whose performance anxiety and case of the yips nearly ruined his baseball career, was in the Braves’ bullpen as they faced the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Globe Life Field.
“If you had told me this would happen a year ago, I would have said, ‘There’s no way,’ ” Matzek said from his hotel room in Arlington, Texas. “This was always the vision and the dream. This moment, this time, was the thing that kept me pushing through all of the (crud) I was dealing with. And the funny thing is, after everything I’ve been through, this all happened so fast. So, for my vision to come true is just a whole different thing.”
Matzek’s feel-good story rivals that of Rockies closer Daniel Bard, who this past season overcame his own battle with the yips and pitched in the majors for the first time in more than seven years. Like Bard, Matzek has done more than just make it back to the bigs, he’s thrived.
The 29-year-old left-hander made 21 appearances during the 60-game season and led the major leagues with 12 relief appearances of more than one inning. His ERA was 2.79 and he ranked fifth among big-league relievers in strikeouts, with 43. In the first three postseason games of his career, Matzek pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits, striking out eight and walking none.
“Every time I see Tyler on the mound, it’s just a great feeling,” said Weiss, Matzek’s first big-league manager. “Because I know what he’s been through and I was there in the dark days. Now he’s been pitching at a very high level. He’s been quite the find.”
Weiss was there on June 11, 2014, when Matzek made his big-league debut, pitching 7 innings against Atlanta at Coors Field. The Rockies won, 8-2, and Matzek was outstanding, giving up two runs on five hits, striking out seven and walking none. It seemed to be the beginning of a bright career for Matzek, the 11th overall pick who got a $3.9 million signing bonus from the Rockies.
On Sept. 5, 2014, at Coors Field, Matzek hurled a three-hit shutout against San Diego. Over his final six starts of his rookie season, he went 4-2 with a 1.55 ERA.
But anxiety crept upon him and the yips grew out of control. He pitched the Rockies home opener in 2015 but within a month was sent down to Triple-A. Things got worse from there, and there were many, including Weiss, who feared Matzek’s career was over.
“That’s a dark place to be,” Weiss said. “It’s a tough place to come back from. Not just to come back to pitching, but to pitch at a high level at the major leagues. The chances are overwhelmingly against you. It takes a special person.”
Matzek’s long-and-winding journey has included stints at all levels of the minors, including playing for the independent Texas AirHogs of the American Association as late as 2019, as well as a season for the Palm Springs Chill in the California Winter League in 2018. He came very close to quitting baseball. It was his wife, Lauren, who kept him going.
“In 2017, when I wasn’t getting picked up by anybody, I was back home in California, playing catch,” Matzek recalled. “Or rather, I was trying to play catch, throwing the ball all over the place. I basically told Lauren that I was done and that I was going to go back to school. I told her we were going to have to figure out the rest of our lives.
“She basically said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘I know you can do it. I believe in you and you need to keep pushing along as long as you possibly can,’ ” Matzek recalled. “I said, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’ But I was done, honestly. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be playing baseball.”
The couple started dating at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif., so Lauren knew her husband, sometimes better than he knew himself.
“I told him, ‘This isn’t, obviously, where we planned to be, but I’ve seen you pitch, I know what you can do,’ ” she said. “I told him, ‘Don’t give up until you have tried your hardest to get back to where you need to be, back to where you belong.’ As cheesy as it sounds, I knew that once he believed in himself again, he would get back to the big leagues.”
In addition to his wife’s unwavering support, Matzek consulted psychologists and mental-skills coaches to help him beat the yips.
Still, the roller-coaster continued until last summer in Grand Prairie, Texas, when Matzek got some key advice from Billy Martin Jr., the son of the late, famed, colorful manager. Martin, president of the AirHogs, convinced Matzek to return to the higher arm angle he employed early in his career.
“That one little thing changed my command and my (velocity) — everything,” Matzek said. “Then I just continued to throw, throw, throw. I think that got the yips out of me.
“It also enabled me to relax. I wasn’t thinking about the mechanics anymore. I was just thinking about pitching and my delivery got much smoother. It was easier than it had been in a long time.”
Matzek, however, was not with the Braves’ big-league team during spring training. During summer camp, he got only a few looks with Atlanta. But, as Weiss noted, the left-hander was striking out just about every batter he faced at the Braves’ alternative training site and Matzek made the club’s opening-day roster in late July.
“I remember telling our guys, ‘If this kid has figured it out, he can be a game-changer for us,” Weiss said. “And he has been.”
Which doesn’t really surprise Lauren.
“I’m super proud of him,” Lauren said. “When he got the call that he was making the opening-day roster, both of us got teary-eyed. I mean, I cried a little bit and I’m not one to cry. I mean, I didn’t even cry on our wedding day. But it was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re back!’ “