ATLANTA — Tyler Matzek stood alone on the infield grass late Saturday night, listening to the sellout crowd still roaring, Braves teammates and family members hugging one another, trying to understand what just happened.
Matzek was out of baseball four years ago. He was living in an RV three years ago, pitching for the Texas AirHogs of the independent American Association, and he was begging two years ago for some team to bring him to their major-league spring training camp.
Now, here he was putting on a spectacular relief performance and leading Atlanta to the World Series for the first time since 1999 with a 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched two innings and struck out four without giving up a baserunner.
It’s a shame that general manager Alex Anthopoulos missed it, revealing afterward that he never watched a single pitch by Matzek.
SWEET REVENGE: Braves knock off Dodgers to advance to World Series
Fellow reliever Luke Jackson heard the crowd noise, but he was sitting slumped on the bench, with his hands over his head, and he was afraid to look, too.
Manager Brian Snitker at least was watching, but he disclosed that a year ago last summer, he couldn’t remember Matzek’s name.
Welcome to Matzek’s world.
“I’m still having trouble believing it all myself,” Matzek said. “I mean, to come from where I have, and to be doing this, it’s just crazy.’’
If he’s dreaming, please, whatever you do, don’t wake him up.
While Eddie Rosario was the NLCS MVP with his .560 batting average and Freddie Freeman was the center of attention, Matzek merely saved Atlanta’s season.
“It’s mind-blowing what he just did,” Jackson said. “Absolutely mind-blowing. Sometimes, you see a guy step up to the stage in big moments. Well, he took the stage and brought it out with him on the mound. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Atlanta was on its way to blowing the game in the seventh inning when Jackson gave up a double, a walk, double as its 4-1 lead shrunk to 4-2. There were runners on second and third with no one out when Matzek was summoned from the bullpen.
“I thought maybe if I could keep them to one run, on a fly ball or something, I’d be ok,” Matzek said. “Really, that’s all I was thinking, trying to limit the damage.”
Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was first up, and he struck out on four pitches, the last an 85-mph slider. Steven Souza went down on four pitches, too, looking at a 99-mph fastball. Former MVP Mookie Betts looked at two 97-mph fastballs for strikes and thenswung and missed at a 98-mph fastball.
Three up, three strikeouts, 11 pitches.
Just like that, Matzek became the first pitcher in postseason history to strike out three consecutive batters in the same inning with runners on second and third.
“It’s got to be one of the greatest pitching performances there’s ever been in the postseason,” Freeman said. “That was unbelievable. If they score, they’re starting to feel good about themselves. The fact they didn’t, that was a huge deflator right there.”
The crowd at Truist Park exploded with euphoria while Matzek screamed right along with them.
And when the crowd screamed, so did Anthopoulos, who was sitting alone in his office, unable to watch.
Anthopoulos, you see, hates watching games when his pitching staff is on the mound. He sits in his office chair, and he listens for the crowd before he peeks at his phone.
“I actually didn’t want a single pitch (Matzek) threw,” Anthopoulos said. “When we pitch, I try not to watch?’’
You’re kidding, right?
“No, it’s just something that organically has evolved over time,” he said. “It’s just easier to handle, really.”
Says Snitker: “It’s unbelievable. We had an extra-inning game on our last road trip to San Diego, and he said he had to clean his closet because he couldn’t take the stress. I’m thinking, “Clean your closet? I wish I could do that. Damn, I wish I had that luxury.’’
Well, what the GM missed, 43,060 screaming fans witnessed.
“I was just sitting there thinking I was going to have a brain aneurysm,” Jackson said. “And then (Matzek) does that. It’s mind-blowing, just mind-blowing. When he came to the dugout, I tried to hug him, but he’s one of those guys who’s so locked in, I don’t even know if he saw me. I don’t think he sees anything except a fastball at 100-mph. I would have kissed him if he let me.”
If it wasn’t heroic enough, Matzek went back out for the eighth inning, and shut down the Dodgers again, 1-2-3, this time on six pitches.
One inning later, with closer Will Smith on the mound, Anthopoulos finally left his office in the upper deck, but this time moved downstairs to Snitker’s office. It was the first time he realized that Snitker, who has been in the organization since 1977, kept old media guides on his bookshelves.
“So I just started thumbing through the 2016 Braves guide,” Anthopoulos said. “I needed something to kill time.”
The 2016 season happened to be the year the Braves finished in last place in the NL East, losing 93 games and finishing 26 ½ games out of first place.
Now, five years later, Atlanta was going to the World Series.
“(Matzek’s) got some huge ones, I tell you that,” Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley said. “Not long ago, he was fighting just to stay in baseball. For him to be that guy now is just unbelievable.”
Atlanta scouting director Dana Brown discovered Matzek in August 2018 and convinced Anthopoulos to sign him to a minor-league deal. He dazzled hitters in a few spot appearances in spring-training games in 2020 until COVID-19 shut down the season for four months. When baseball returned, Snitker had a question.
“I was looking for the guy, but I couldn’t remember his name,” Snitker says. “So, finally I said, “What’s the reliever we used to bring over? You know, the one that struck everyone out. What’s that guy’s name again?”
Tyler Alexander Matzek.
No one will soon forget it in these parts, not after watching his performance this postseason. Matzek has pitched in all but one of Atlanta’s 10 games this postseason, posting a 1.74 ERA while striking out 31 batters in 19 innings.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Snitker said. “He keeps telling me he can pitch every day, and the more I pitch him, the better he does. His breaking ball is the best it has been all year. And the velocity stayed. It’s incredible.”
Said Smith: I don’t know where to put what he just did for this team. He saved us. We don’t get to the World Series without him. Not even close.”
Now, it’s onto the World Series that starts in Houston, about four hours from where Matzek resuscitated his career. He was the No. 11 pick in the 2009 draft for the Colorado Rockies, got the yips, and it wasn’t until he began pitching for the AirHogs in 2018 in Grand Prairie, Texas, that he rediscovered his control.
“It’s been a journey,” Matzek said. “There were some tough times, some dark times, but it makes what’s happening now even more special. You look at this team, and there’s a lot of guys who have been counted out.”
Matzek believed his career was over when he was granted free agency by the Rockies in 2016 and then released by the Chicago White Sox in 2017, the Seattle Mariners in 2018 and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019.
But here he was Saturday evening, a bona fide hero, with a performance that will be etched in Atlanta postseason folklore.
“Funny how life works, isn’t it?’’ Matzek said. “Pretty amazing.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tyler Matzek, Braves World Series-bound. Manager once forgot his name