DENVER—Midway through his second year in pro ball, Tyler Matzek and the Rockies called a timeout.
Struggling at high Class A Modesto, Matzek went home to Southern California for a few weeks. There were whispers that he was going to call it quits.
“No, never,” Matzek said. “I always knew I would get here. I just had to work hard.”
That wasn’t as easy as he expected.
That’s why Matzek could savor his big league debut in the second week of June, when he pitched seven-plus dominant innings in an 8-2 victory over the Braves. He had the most impressive effort of the three rookie starters who made their big league debuts for Colorado in a span of six days—the first time that had happened since Ed Vosberg, Ray Hayward and Jimmy Jones debuted with San Diego in 1986.
Eddie Butler was OK in a 7-2 loss to the Dodgers on a Friday night, and Christian Bergman deserved better in a 3-1 loss to the Braves the following Monday.
Matzek? Well there were no “what-ifs” about his effort. He retired the first 13 batters he faced, and after giving up back-to-back singles to Justin Upton and Chris Johnson with one out in the fifth, he retired the next eight before giving up three singles to open the eighth and giving way to reliever Franklin Morales.
The 13th homegrown pitcher in franchise history to debut in a start at Coors Field, Matzek joined Juan Nicasio (2011) and Bryan Rekar (1995) as the only three of that group to earn a victory. The lefthander, who had a ratio of six walks per nine innings in 106 career minor league starts, did not walk a batter in his big league debut and went to a three-ball count with just two of the 26 batters he faced.
“I was impressed with all three of them,” manager Walt Weiss said. “I think all three can help us.”
This was a far cry from the middle of the 2011 season, when Matzek, for the first time in his life, failed on a baseball field and had to walk away for a short time.
He was the Orange County player of the year his senior year at Capistrano Valley High in Mission Viejo, Calif. He was the 11th player selected in the 2009 draft and received a $3.9 million bonus, the second-biggest in Rockies history behind the $4.6 million bonus given to Jonathan Gray a year ago.
Even though Matzek battled with command in his pro debut for low Class A Asheville in 2010 (62 walks in 89 innings), he went 5-1, 2.92. The wakeup call came the next summer. In 10 starts at Modesto, he went 0-3, 9.82 with 46 walks in 33 innings.
That’s when Matzek took a break, spending some time with his high school coach.
“It was a little mental break,” Matzek said. “I let doubt get in. I had never failed before in my life. Growing up, I was always a little better than every single person I played against. I didn’t have to worry about failure.”
When Matzek was ready, he returned to Asheville. The results were better; nothing spectacular, but it was just his first step.
Matzek returned to Modesto in 2012, was a midseason California League all-star, then put together a solid 2013 for Double-A Tulsa, setting the stage for his promotions in 2014—first to Triple-A Colorado Springs, then to the big leagues.
The callup was as much out of necessity as anything, with Colorado’s rotation beset with injuries. That’s why Butler first got the call to start in place of Morales, whose struggles had led to him back to the bullpen. That’s why Bergman replaced Jordan Lyles, who broke the middle finger in his left hand trying to tag a runner at home plate six days earlier.
Matzek then got the call to take over for Butler, who had inflammation in his right rotator cuff and went on the disabled list, joining Lyles and fellow starters Brett Anderson (broken left index finger) and Tyler Chatwood (strained right elbow).
Matzek gave the Rockies an effort of seven-plus innings for only the third time in 32 games since May 6, a stretch in which the team’s rotation had a 5.42 ERA and seven wins.
“He gave us what we really needed,” Weiss said.
The win was a nice start, but Matzek knows it is only a beginning, and he knows there will be challenges along the way.
“I’ll fail again,” he said. “It’s part of the game. It’s something you have to deal with.”