Whenever Braves reliever Tyler Matzek trots from the outfield to the mound during the late innings of a playoff game, one word tends to hover over the moment: "yips." Sometimes the announcer will briefly tell the story of how Matzek became one of the most fearsome and dependable relievers on a World Series team. It's a story that is told like a fairytale. Can you believe, the tones of their voices say, that he is here? Can you believe he's actually good?
Matzek has been more than good this postseason. Through 10.1 innings, his ERA is 1.74. Of the 31 outs he has accrued, he snagged 17 of them with strikeouts. He has been, really, immaculate. In Game 6 of the NLCS series versus the Dodgers on Saturday, Matzek was the kind of reliever fans dream of having on their team. He was confident. It felt, with him on the mound, like Atlanta had everything under control. It was the seventh inning, and the Braves were still up 4-2, but reliever Luke Jackson was in turmoil. A run had just scored and there were runners on first and second with no outs when Matzek entered the game. He should have been exhausted. On Wednesday of last week, he tied the record for consecutive games pitched in the playoffs with eight. He got Thursday off (a game the Dodgers won) and was called back to action on Saturday.
Matzek trotted out to the mound. He struck out Albert Pujols. He struck out pinch-hitter Steven Souza. He struck out Mookie Betts. A good inning, a disaster averted. He came back in the eighth and pitched a masterclass. He threw six pitches to retire the side: one strikeout and two groundouts.
It was only Matzek's second time pitching two innings in the majors. His first time was in July of this year. At 31 years old, he has become baseball's favorite redemption story.
Matzek was drafted 11th overall in 2009 by the Colorado Rockies and promptly lost the ability to throw strikes. “All I had was fear,” he told Sports Illustrated. “That put me into a freeze mindset, and that's what led to the yips.” He lost the ability to control the ball entirely. The Rockies sent him down to the minors, where things got worse. He walked 16.5 batters per nine innings. After that, Matzek spent years being signed and released by teams. 2016 was Colorado. In 2017, the White Sox. In 2018, a minor-league affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. In 2019, a minor-league affiliate for the Arizona Diamondbacks. At the beginning of the 2020 season, when he reported to Atlanta's spring training, it had been five years since he'd played in a Major League game. "He's a longshot to begin the season in Atlanta's bullpen," MLB.com wrote.
But here he is, 11 years after being drafted, saving the game from peril in the seventh inning to push his team into the World Series. “There were some tough times, some dark times, but it makes what’s happening now even more special," Matzek told USA Today. And it is pretty special. In every game I've watched where Matzek takes the mound, I hold my breath for the first few pitches. I want him to do well, want him to succeed. Because it is so hard to rebuild yourself from catastrophic failure, much less to do it alone. Tyler Matzek worked so hard to be here, and now he is the guy that can be relied on to stare down Mookie Betts in a high-leverage situation and punch out one of the best hitters in the world. So much for the yips.