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How Atlanta’s Left-Handed Bullpen Trio Helped Spark a World Series Run

While outfielder Eddie Rosario has been the postseason hero, relievers Tyler Matzek, Will Smith, and A.J. Minter have also played a vital role in propelling the club to its first World Series since 1999

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After overcoming a 3-1 deficit in last year’s NLCS, and after coming back in games 3 and 5 this year, the Dodgers were good for one last rally in the last game of this season’s rematch. Trailing by three runs in the top of the seventh inning of Game 6, their chances at a championship repeat on the line, Chris Taylor doubled, Cody Bellinger walked, and A.J. Pollock doubled, too. The Dodgers’ win expectancy rose from 11 percent to 42 percent. Atlanta’s lead was in trouble.

In came Tyler Matzek, a 31-year-old lefty reliever who just two years earlier was pitching in indy ball. And out went Albert Pujols, whiffing on a slider; out went Steven Souza Jr., looking at a 99-mile-per hour heater; out went Mookie Betts, swinging through a fastball as Matzek pumped his fist and escaped the jam.

Outfielder Eddie Rosario is the surprise hero of Atlanta’s surprise postseason jaunt, but it’s also the team’s bullpen that has propelled the club to its first World Series since 1999. Lefties Matzek, Will Smith, and A.J. Minter have combined to record a 0.73 ERA this postseason, in the process striking out 35 batters and allowing just 17 base runners in 24 2/3 innings.

Atlanta’s Lefty Relief Trio

Statistic Tyler Matzek A.J. Minter Will Smith
Statistic Tyler Matzek A.J. Minter Will Smith
Games 9 5 7
Innings 10 1/3 7 1/3 7
ERA 1.74 0.00 0.00
WHIP 0.77 0.55 0.71
Strikeouts 17 11 7
Record 2-0, 4 holds 0-0, 2 holds 2-0, 4 saves

Those numbers look even more spectacular in context, as essentially all those innings have come in close games. Rosario leads all Atlanta players in championship win probability added this postseason. Austin Riley, who has seemingly crowded all his hits this month into clutch moments, ranks third. But Matzek, Smith, and Minter are the others in the top five—ahead of Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies and all of Atlanta’s starting pitchers.

In fact, Matzek leads all pitchers—starters and relievers, AL and NL—in cWPA this postseason. Smith ranks fourth, Minter seventh.

Top Pitchers by Championship Win Probability Added, 2021 Postseason

Pitcher Team cWPA
Pitcher Team cWPA
Tyler Matzek Atlanta 16.5%
Nick Pivetta Boston 11.1%
Logan Webb San Francisco 10.6%
Will Smith Atlanta 9.7%
Max Scherzer Los Angeles 8.4%
Garrett Whitlock Boston 8.3%
A.J. Minter Atlanta 7.8%
Kendall Graveman Houston 7.0%
Brusdar Graterol Los Angeles 5.4%
Ian Anderson Atlanta 5.2%

The southpaw’s ultimate trajectory from first-round draft pick and top-25 prospect to dynamite postseason arm coheres—but he took plenty of detours along the way. A few years ago, Matzek was suffering from the yips, and it seemed unlikely that he would ever pitch in the majors again, let alone on this stage.

In 2015, Matzek walked 19 batters in 22 innings for the Rockies, and then was even wilder after being sent down to the minor leagues to work on his command, with 25 more walks in 13 2/3 innings. In the minors in 2016, he walked 33 in 26 2/3 innings, and Colorado cut bait after the season. Matzek didn’t play at all in 2017, then struggled with a 5.89 ERA playing for a now-defunct team called the Texas AirHogs in the independent American Association. After leaving the Rockies, he was signed and quickly released by the White Sox, Mariners, and Diamondbacks. He talked to his wife about quitting the sport.

But Matzek improved enough in a second season in indy ball to secure another audition, this time with Atlanta. (He is certainly the most successful AirHog since Porco Rosso.) In 2020, he returned to the majors. In 2021, he filled the role of a reliable setup man. And in the 2021 postseason, he—well, allow one of his bullpen mates to explain: “Tyler Nutsack,” Luke Jackson said after Matzek rescued him in the seventh inning of Game 6. “That’s what everyone calls him, because he’s got to drag those huge balls out to the mound every night.”

(As recently as a week ago, Jackson would have also warranted inclusion in any celebration of Atlanta relievers, as the team’s top right-handed setup man. Then he blew up in three appearances in a row against the Dodgers; if he hadn’t allowed two runners inherited from Matzek to score on a Chris Taylor double, the Matzek-Minter-Smith trio would have a collective 0.00 ERA in the postseason.)

Matzek is almost exclusively a two-pitch pitcher now, with a reliever’s archetypal fastball-slider arsenal. He sets up hitters with one of the majors’ most effective four-seamers, which he throws 71 percent of the time, and which averages 96 miles per hour—up three to four ticks from his tenure in Colorado last decade. Then he puts them away with his slider, which he throws another 27 percent of the time, and which induces whiffs on more than half of swings against it.

Batters Against Tyler Matzek’s Pitches (2021 Regular Season)

Pitch Batting Average Slugging Percentage
Pitch Batting Average Slugging Percentage
Fastball .192 .288
Slider .131 .213

The other members of Atlanta’s unexpected shutdown trio have their warts as well, even if their journeys have been less circuitous than Matzek’s. Smith is more homer-prone than is comfortable from a closer, but he also saved 37 games this season (fourth most in the majors) and has allowed just one longball since the start of September. Minter was demoted to Triple-A in July; in 24 games since returning from the minors in August (playoffs included), however, he has a 1.37 ERA and 0.76 WHIP.

In the World Series, Atlanta has a superior rotation with Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. hurt, but the Astros have a clear offensive advantage: The majors’ best and highest-scoring regular-season lineup has averaged 6.7 runs per game in the playoffs, with at least five runs in nine of 10 contests. Atlanta’s three key relievers will need to remain on the right side of dependability—or the left side, seeing as they’re all southpaws—to try to slow that potent attack.

Charlie Morton, Max Fried, and Ian Anderson are all more than capable starters; they bested the Brewers’ and Dodgers’ formidable trios, after all. But they also haven’t gone more than six innings in any postseason start. And while Atlanta might have the overall advantage in games 1 through 3, the Game 4 situation could be an adventure for both teams. In two Game 4s thus far, Atlanta has tried two tactics: first, Morton on short rest, and second, a bullpen game with Drew Smyly grabbing the plurality of innings.

Regardless, the pen will need to pick up a whole lot of innings this series. Thus far in the postseason, Atlanta’s three main starters have thrown 43 innings. The relievers have thrown 44, including one from Jesse Chavez to begin the bullpen game.

So while Smith has worked exclusively as a one-inning reliever this month, the added flexibility of Matzek and Minter should help manager Brian Snitker navigate the late innings against Houston’s powerful lineup. Matzek wants the ball every day and almost receives it that often, having pitched in nine of the team’s 10 games so far this postseason. Minter has never been a multi-inning weapon before—in every regular season of his career, he’s recorded more games than innings—but he’s gone more than a single inning in three of five playoff games, including two apiece in NLCS games 4 and 6.

Matzek, Minter, and Smith’s handedness could help at the margins, as well: The Astros’ lineup has a solid overall handedness balance, but the two hottest Houston hitters are Yordan Álvarez (1.329 OPS this postseason) and Kyle Tucker (.935), both lefties. A month ago, nobody would have realistically predicted that Matzek vs. Álvarez, or Minter vs. Tucker, or Smith vs. any other notable Astros hitter would decide the 2021 title—but now those matchups loom, certain to swing a crucial game or three over the next week.

Since the advent of one-inning relievers, MLB playoff history is full of relief trios that have collectively caught fire for a month, from the Charlton-Dibble-Myers Nasty Boys of the early ’90s to the Herrera-Davis-Holland Royals of the 2010s. A whole lot of dominoes needed to line up just right to propel Matzek-Minter-Smith into that company. But now they’re there, and they’re deserving, and they’re just four wins away from a championship.