clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

“I Was So Lost”: How Tyler Matzek Conquered the Yips to Become a World Series Champion

At the heart of Atlanta’s unlikely 2021 title run is an even more improbable story: the indispensable pitching of a reliever who years prior had lost the ability to throw and fallen completely out of the game 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One afternoon in February 2015, just a few months after his rookie year in the majors and the year before he’d fall completely out of the game he loved, Tyler Matzek rolled his ankle.

This was nothing. He just needed some tape, some ice, and a little time. This was everything. In Matzek’s mind, he didn’t have time to spare. He had goals to accomplish. He’d been solid as a rookie but felt he needed to be spectacular as a sophomore. Ace, All-Star, the man who could carry a mediocre Rockies team toward contention. At 24 years old, this felt like the inevitable unfolding of his life’s plan. He’d been a first-round pick in 2009, straight out of high school, the second left-handed pitcher off the board. “He looked the part,” says then-Rockies manager Walt Weiss. “We had visions of him at the top of our rotation for years.” Matzek had risen steadily through the minors, and when he made his big league debut at 23 in June 2014, he didn’t even celebrate. Failure devastated him, but success brought no joy, only relief. And now he had a bum ankle. Suddenly, he says, “I saw it all slipping away.”

The ankle might lead to other problems, he told himself. Never mind that he’d rolled that same ankle before, had always played right through it. This, he thought, might be different. “It just stressed me the hell out,” he says. Still, he tried to push ahead. He went through his workouts, received treatment from Colorado’s trainers, and continued, for a few days, to throw as he’d always thrown.

It wasn’t the pain that did it. It was something else he could barely feel and could not see, something that popped up just a few days later, in a game of catch, when Tyler Matzek, major league pitcher, found that all of a sudden he could not throw a baseball on target at all.

It started slowly. It always does. A game of catch with teammate Chad Bettis, there at the Rockies spring training facility. Low pressure, no stakes, just the ball moving through the air into a glove, into a throwing hand, and back into the air again.

But then, he remembers, one throw spiked straight into the ground. Another sailed far over Bettis’s head. And then another. And another and another. Bettis told him it was fine; he didn’t mind chasing down wayward throws. Matzek nodded. He kept throwing. But he wondered.

“Do I have the yips?”

The names pass through baseball history as whispers. Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Mark Wohlers. Baseball players who reach the very top of their profession, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, lose the ability to perform the most basic task of their job.

The phenomenon often seems like a mystery. For decades, it was called “Steve Blass disease” after the man with the first high-profile case. Rick Ankiel famously fell out of the majors as a pitcher when he developed a case, eventually returning as an outfielder. Golfers get them, losing the ability to putt. Gymnasts experience something similar, and more dangerous, called the “twisties.” The most recent season of Ted Lasso featured a story line in which a soccer player loses the ability to take penalty kicks, and those around him refuse to say the word, “yips,” out of superstitious fear.

So: What are they?

“You’re going to get a different answer depending on who you talk to,” says Patrick Cohn, a sports psychologist who focuses on the yips. “It’s one of the most difficult things to understand, and even more difficult to deal with.” In baseball, it can be described, most plainly, as a psychological state that inhibits an athlete from consistently making throws that should come easily. If you’re in or around baseball, you know the yips when you see them.

According to Cohn, sometimes they develop in the wake of trauma, whether personal or professional, and often emerge during times of incredible stress in an athlete’s life. Every couple of years, Atlanta pitcher Luke Jackson says, someone will show up to spring training with a full-blown case. “You see them struggling,” Jackson says. “You know that guy is doing everything in his power to throw a baseball over the plate. He just can’t.”

Adds Weiss: “It’s a lot more common than you would think. You just mostly see it at the minor league level. But those guys never make it to the big leagues, so you never hear about them.” In 2020, Rockies pitcher Daniel Bard returned to the big leagues after his career was derailed by the yips seven years earlier. But there are few other stories of players regaining top form after the yips fully derail them.

Weiss tells a story. Back when he played for the Oakland A’s in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the team hired Harvey Dorfman, considered the godfather of sports psychology in baseball. Before he died in 2011, Dorfman was famous for sharpening players’ mental approach to every aspect of the game, with a client list that included Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Roy Halladay. Once, Weiss noticed Dorfman working with someone in the organization who had developed a case of the yips.

“How do you fix those guys?” Weiss remembers asking him.

“Those guys,” Dorfman told him, “don’t get fixed.”

Matzek tried to tell himself this was just one game of catch, a few wayward throws. But still, his fears grew. This felt far different from losing command on the mound, stranger and more terrifying than walking the bases loaded or serving up fat pitches upon which hitters could feast. “I should be able to play catch every single time and never miss my partner,” Matzek says. “Sometimes it’s the fear of just the most simple throw.”

Cohn says that sense of fear, often unconscious, underlies nearly all cases of the yips. It is not just the fear that a single throw might go awry. It’s what could follow. Injury to a teammate or opponent. Loss of a game, and then a season, and then a career. “Making a bad pitch is not so awful,” Cohn says. “But it starts the cycle, mentally.” Fear layers on top of fear. “You have three options to react to fear,” Matzek says. “Fight, flight, or freeze.” With the yips, he says, the body starts to freeze. The wind-up can feel good, but as the body moves into the throw, up rises that hidden tension.

Houston Astros vs Atlanta Braves, 2021 World Series Photo by Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

“It feels like an actual hitch in your throw,” Matzek says. “For me, it’s like my arm goes rigid and stops. Like a piece of wood. It doesn’t feel fluid. It doesn’t move like it’s supposed to move.” The result is a ball flying in any number of directions, whether over a partner’s head or straight into the ground.

“It feels like when you’re at the bottom of the pool,” Matzek says, “and you’re holding your breath, and you need to go get air, and you go up to the surface, and then all of a sudden you hit a raft, because somebody’s laying on top of the pool in a raft, and then you panic, because you’re going, ‘What the hell? This isn’t supposed to be here. I’m supposed to have oxygen.’ It feels like that every single time you throw a baseball. It’s miserable.”

Matzek kept throwing. He kept missing. Within a couple of days, things got worse. “I’d be at 60 feet from my partner,” he says, “and I would throw it straight into the ground, like 30 feet in front of him, and it would hop to him. And then he was like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘Dude. I don’t know.’”

The strange thing? For a while, games of catch were the biggest problem. On the actual pitching mound, he felt OK. His first spring training starts went fine. The more complicated the throw, the higher the stakes, the more he felt at ease. In a game of catch, he had more time to think. On the mound, his muscle memory often took over. The simpler the throw the more difficult it became.

Over the course of the spring, though, he felt that anxiety creeping in on the mound. Spring training ended, and the Rockies traveled to Milwaukee to open the 2015 season. Matzek pitched a live batting practice session at Miller Park, essentially a full scrimmage in an empty stadium. “I was all over the place,” he says. He hit multiple batters. When his teammates stepped into the box to face him, he thought he saw fear on their faces. “I’m just freaking out,” he says. “I have to go start in a big league game soon, and I can’t throw the freaking ball over the plate.” Then-Rockies catcher Michael McKenry remembers crouching behind the plate, trying to will Matzek’s pitches into the zone. “You could see that hollow look in his eye,” says McKenry. “Like, this dude is just searching.”

After he finished the live BP session, Matzek walked off the mound and into the clubhouse, and he sat at his locker and cried.

“I was so lost,” he says.

As Matzek struggled, Weiss, the manager, remembers exchanging knowing glances with other coaches, eyebrows raising across the dugout each time Matzek wildly missed his target. But no one said anything. “People look the other way,” Weiss says. “No one really wants to acknowledge it.” McKenry clung to the belief that Matzek’s mechanics needed fixing, that the issue was in his body, not his mind.

In his opening start against Chicago, Matzek went four innings and gave up only one run. But there were concerning moments. In the first inning, in between a groundout and two strikeouts, he hit Cubs star first baseman Anthony Rizzo with a pitch. After surviving a couple of walks and a wild pitch in the second, he faced Rizzo again in the third. First pitch, fastball, ball one. Second pitch, fastball, strike one. Third pitch, fastball, ball two. “All right, dude,” Matzek remembers telling himself. “Just calm down. Let it go. Throw the ball.” He set himself up. Went into the stretch. Delivered the pitch. And proceeded to hit Rizzo square in the back.

The benches did not clear, but after hitting the same star player for the second time in the same game, they very well could have. “They could tell I was going through some shit,” Matzek says of the Cubs players. But even so, Matzek knew they would retaliate. He’d hit one of theirs; now they would hit one of his. “Not only am I just messing my own career up,” he says, “I’m going to hurt somebody out here. I’m going to hurt someone on the other team, or I’m going to hurt somebody on my team. Because they’re going to retaliate. We’re going to have to fight. We’re going to get people fined. We’re going to get people suspended. We’re going to cost the team.”

He held on for a few more starts, walking six in a loss to San Diego but working through five innings of two-run ball to earn a win at Arizona. By this point, Matzek didn’t dare voice his concerns about having the yips to anyone else, not even his wife. Shame and fear suppressed the truth. “I don’t want to panic anybody,” he says, “and make them freak out and lose trust in me.”

He started again on May 6 against Arizona. He remembers facing Diamondbacks star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Lefty versus righty. Matzek had been struggling all day, walking six batters in two innings, “yipping all over the place,” he says. Now he squared up to pitch to perhaps the Diamondbacks’ most dangerous hitter. He wound up, released, and watched as the ball flew across home plate and past Goldschmidt’s body, and bounced about 6 feet behind his back.

He remembers Goldschmidt looking at him, bewildered.

What the hell?

“I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t know. Get me out of here. I can’t control this baseball.’”

That week, the Rockies demoted Matzek to Triple-A.

Months passed, a blur of walks, wild pitches, and hit batsmen, occasionally interspersed with days of complete dominance on the mound. He still had the stuff. He just never knew when it would show up. He remembers throwing 16 balls in a row, walking in runs without hitters even having to lift the bat from their shoulders. “It was just absolutely atrocious,” he says. “I had no idea where the ball was. I’m freaking out on the mound. Breathing out of my eyes. It was unbelievable.”

Down in Albuquerque, he gave up 12 runs in 11 1/3 innings, and he reckoned with the fact that in a year when he hoped to become a National League All-Star, he was walking in runners in Triple-A. “The minor leagues suck,” he says. “They fucking suck. And to know that you went from the minor leagues, and you worked your ass off to get to the big leagues, and now you’re back at the fucking minor leagues, and no one’s going to bring you straight back to the major leagues, it fucking sucks.” His wife, Lauren, tried to stay positive. She’d spent most of their relationship following Tyler through the minors. She saw their friends get demoted and promoted all the time. But when he reached the short-season Single-A team in Boise, where they were surrounded by prospects straight out of college or high school, and Matzek was still struggling, then, she says, “It was like, ‘What do we do?’ I wasn’t sure where we go from here.”

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

By early 2016, the Rockies suggested Matzek see a sports psychologist and psychiatrist who they thought could help. It was only then, when talking to mental health professionals, that Matzek finally uttered the word “yips.” “As dumb as it sounds, the only person that can beat Voldemort is Harry Potter because he’s not afraid to say his name,” Matzek says. “By not saying the name yips, you just give it that mythical power.”

The sports psychologist encouraged meditation, tried to keep him in the moment. The psychiatrist worked with him on the generalized anxiety that he’d dealt with his entire life, anxiety that contributed to the yips. All the while, Matzek would go to the team facility in Denver to throw with a catcher the team hired to work with him each day. He remembers the catcher running all over the field —“Like 10 miles every day,” he says, laughing—retrieving balls Matzek had launched to parts unknown.

His stress level decreased. The mental health professionals helped, if just a little, and something about throwing to a partner, rather than to a live batter, allowed him to relax, if just barely. But still. Pitch after pitch sailed away from the target. “I guess I’m just going to be done with baseball,” he remembers thinking. “This is probably not going to pan out.”

He spent 2016 in Double-A Hartford and Single-A Modesto, continuing to struggle, rarely seeing the mound. When the season ended, so did his contract with the Rockies. They did not offer him another. “To their credit, I think they did as much as they could,” he says. “It’s just a hard thing. A lot of people don’t know how to handle it.” Going into 2017, the White Sox called, but they cut him by the end of the spring. “That was the lowest point,” he says.

Matzek returned home to Southern California, where he and Lauren moved in with her mother. For a few days, Matzek stayed in bed. He thought his career might be completely over. He remembers a simmering anger, all directed inward.

“How the fuck did you let this happen?” he remembers thinking. “You had the world in your hands and you just let it fucking slip right through.”

After Matzek spent two or three days in bed, he says, Lauren came into the room, looked at him, and made a demand.

“Get up. Do something.

So he made a plan. He found a gym, got back to lifting and cardio. He found a field and a throwing partner, a former minor leaguer named Jake Pintar who lived nearby. For an hour or two, several days a week, they would stand together on an empty field, and just throw. “I thought then, and I still kind of believe now a little bit,” he says, “that if I have 10,000 throws of the yips every one I throw is just one throw closer to being done with this shit.”

Over time, he improved. Even though the yips had begun over a simple game of catch, they’d developed so that “the biggest stressors for me were getting somebody injured,” he says. Now, returning to games of catch in California, that stress melted away. Matzek could focus only on making throw after throw after throw.

Matzek hoped that eventually a team would reach out with interest in signing him to a minor league contract, but the phone never rang. All spring and all summer, Matzek pushed through his solitary routine, but no demand emerged for his services. He started thinking about future plans, weighing alternate options. He looked online at the course catalog for nearby Saddleback College. September arrived, and the deadline for registration approached. He told Lauren he was going to enroll, to leave baseball behind for good.

“No,” she said, flatly but firmly. “You can always go back to school.”

Matzek tried to reason with her. “Look,” he said, “we might run out of money. It might be 10 years. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“I don’t care,” he recalls her saying. “Do whatever it takes to get back into baseball. I know you can do it.”

Lauren says now that she barely remembers this specific conversation, one of countless times she told Tyler how much she believed in him, that he couldn’t give up. “I don’t know why that’s the one that stuck with him,” she says. But for Matzek, this belief, in this moment, felt sustaining in a new and powerful way.

“OK,” he remembers thinking. “If she knows what she’s getting into, then fuck it. Let’s go.”

Two weeks later he got a phone call. Not from a Major League Baseball team, but from his old Rockies catcher Michael McKenry, who’d been talking to a guy with an interesting story and more interesting ideas, a Navy SEAL who lived in Tennessee and said he knew how to “fix” Matzek.

About eight weeks after that, Matzek got on a plane.

More than a decade before he ever met Tyler Matzek, Jason Kuhn woke up one morning in the hallway of his dorm room, next to a near-empty bottle of whiskey, angry and confused. A right-handed pitcher at Middle Tennessee State, Kuhn had been a mid-level prospect, someone who figured to at least get a shot at playing pro ball. Then he got the yips. They started slowly, then got progressively worse over the course of the season, until he threw six wild pitches in a single inning, one shy of the NCAA record for most wild pitches in a game. “I really threw like 20,” he says.

Somewhere in the middle of his spectacular implosion, Kuhn’s catcher and best friend made a trip to the mound.

“Hey, man,” Kuhn remembers him saying. “Just, uh, you know. Relax. Take a deep breath.”

Kuhn turned his body and asked his catcher to turn with him, until they were both facing center field, faces hidden from the dugout’s view.

“Dude,” he remembers saying. “We’re well beyond that.” He shook his head.

“The score is already out of control. None of this matters. I’m not afraid. I’m not nervous.” He shook his head. Then he held out his right arm. They both studied it. Kuhn continued. “I just cannot make my arm do what I want it to do.”

His catcher looked up at him and nodded.

“Well,” Kuhn remembers his catcher saying. “You keep throwing ’em. And I’ll keep on going and getting ’em.”

Together, they laughed, and Kuhn continued to spray pitches all across the backstop, until finally, mercifully, he exited the game. He would never pitch competitively again.

Baseball had been Kuhn’s life. When he lost it, he foundered, drinking too much, wallowing in self-pity, struggling to figure out the next chapter in his life. Later during his senior year, not long after he woke up next to the bottle of whiskey, he prayed. “Help me,” he asked God, and he believed that God told him that some better purpose awaited, if he could be patient. And so he finished school, watched the MLB draft come and go without ever hearing his name, and tried to figure out what was next.

Months later, he found another challenge. He set out to become a Navy SEAL. He loved what the SEALs represented, an endless striving to be the best, a combination of service to country and testing of self. He made it through training and says he served multiple combat tours. Every now and then, on a base or a training site, he would join a game of catch, and he would feel the yips returning, his arm going stiff, the ball flying off target. But as he continued to throw, he forced himself to focus only on the feeling of the seams against his fingers, never on the target.

About four years after his last college baseball game, Kuhn says, throw by throw, he felt his command coming back. For the first time in years, he could consistently throw a baseball where he wanted. After abandoning one dream for another, he found, finally, that the yips were gone.

When Kuhn transitioned into civilian life, he began a career as a performance coach, working with athletes and business professionals. He settled back home in Tennessee. One day, he told his story to fellow MTSU baseball alum McKenry, who in turn told him about Matzek. “I can fix him,” Kuhn said.

Matzek wasn’t so sure. After talking with Kuhn on the phone, he liked him, but he had no immediate reason to think Kuhn would get different results than the mental health professionals who had already tried to help. And besides, he knew how much these kinds of services cost. He was no longer living on a big league salary. He was crashing with his mother-in-law, thinking about community college. He couldn’t afford to pour money into a failed dream.

Kuhn made Matzek an offer. Pay nothing up front. Instead, Kuhn said, he’d take 10 percent of Matzek’s first contract when he got back to the major leagues. Matzek agreed. Even the offer itself allowed Matzek to shift his mentality. “When you have a guy who’s gone through the yips and he’s willing to do that, it gives you a sense of, ‘Oh. OK. This guy knows what he’s fucking doing. He believes in himself. And if he believes in me, then why can’t I believe in myself?’”

Kuhn talked about the yips differently than anyone Matzek had ever been around. Kuhn had never been formally trained in sports psychology, but he’d spent his life studying himself and others in high-pressure situations, whether in his own baseball career, in SEAL exercises, or on the battlefield. He’d developed his own theories on where the yips come from and how they can be dealt with. He compares throwing a baseball to firing a gun. “You pull the trigger,” he says, “and people have a little bit of extra flex, a little bit of tension in their arm. And it’s because your mind is saying, ‘There’s an explosion taking place in my hands. So prepare for that explosion.’”

No matter how a shooter sets up, no matter how they calm themselves before firing, their subconscious prepares for the violence in their hands, causing them to flex, involuntarily, in ways that can make them miss the target. The same thing happens in a pitcher who has the yips. “You go to throw,” Kuhn says, “and you stiffen up, and it’ll squirt out the side, or you try to muscle through it, and you look around and that’s when you see it flying, somewhere way over there.”

Kuhn had never worked with someone struggling with the yips until Matzek, but he’s worked with several others since. He doesn’t use the word “recovery” when discussing the yips. “I don’t believe in it yet,” he says. He does, however, believe in relief. In order to find that relief, he says, “We’ve got to find the things that are causing that little bit of tension, and then start working through them.” To do this, he finds exercises that slowly begin to simulate the tension that players feel in a live-game setting, and then he slowly escalates that tension over time.

Kuhn also worked to relieve Matzek of the narratives that often surround the yips. Namely, that it means a player is mentally weak. He pointed to his own experience. “Dude, I graduated Navy SEAL training,” he says. “The most mentally and physically demanding military training course in the world. So if that’s true, and I got through it still with the yips, then the yips is not due to mental weakness, because I’m mentally tough.”

This was critical for Matzek, who’d heard from more people than he can count that the yips equated to a lack of toughness, even that Matzek’s background as a suburban Orange County kid meant he didn’t have the makeup required to overcome them. “I felt like I had to be mentally tough,” he says, “because I was showing up every day and failing for years, and then still showing up again the next day. So knowing that one of the baddest dudes on the planet had the same thing and was telling me it has nothing to do with mental toughness was a big deal.”

On Matzek’s first day in Tennessee, Kuhn took him to a shooting range, where he talked him through the shooting analogy and together they fired guns. And then he proceeded to push Matzek through one of the most brutal workouts he had ever experienced. Running, sprints, squats, all unrelenting, even as stomachs turned and vision blurred. All the while, Kuhn and McKenry (who joined them for the week) worked out alongside him, pushing their own limits. Kuhn had Matzek dressed in full body armor, then gave him a medicine ball and pointed him toward a hill. “This hill’s like 45 degrees,” Matzek remembers. “It’s straight up and down.” Kuhn told Matzek to throw the ball ahead of him, then run up and grab it as it rolled back down. Then pick it up and throw it again. “Throw it, run, grab it. Throw it, run, grab it,” says Matzek. “It’s basically an impossible task.”

All the while, McKenry was standing at the bottom of the hill, doing squats in a weighted vest. These were the rules. McKenry could not stop doing squats until Matzek reached the top of the hill, medicine ball in hand, and carried it all the way back down. Matzek vomited. McKenry vomited. Kuhn, pushing through his own version of the same workouts, vomited too. “The first thing he taught me,” Matzek says, “was get your mind off the pain you’re feeling and start doing the task you have in front of you to get your loved one out of the pain that he’s feeling.” For Matzek, this clicked. “It gave me energy,” he says. “Like, just fucking do it. Just go do it. Because it has to be done.”

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The next day, they went to a local baseball diamond so Matzek could throw. And to both Kuhn and McKenry’s surprise, he looked OK. Matzek says that on a scale of 0 to 10, if a 0 was a complete inability to throw a baseball and a 10 was an ability to dominate major league hitters, he was now at a two or a three. Spending the summer throwing alone in California had stripped him of his triggers. “You don’t have to stress about hurting teammates. You don’t have to stress about losing. The dread of showing up at the ballpark wasn’t there.”

So Kuhn started reintroducing those triggers. With McKenry’s help, he scattered the field with Matzek’s old jerseys from Colorado. In the dugouts, they placed printed-out articles about his struggles and his demotion to the minor leagues. “Our job,” says McKenry, “was to cause stress and panic. We wanted to make him falter. Get his head wrapped up in all that could go wrong.” Kuhn brought in strangers and asked them to walk around the diamond, passing through Matzek’s field of vision, doing anything to distract him from his fingers on the seams. He got a bullhorn and pulled up videos of some of Matzek’s worst performances, making him listen to his own failures as he threw.

Kuhn asked Matzek what he felt, and Matzek told him he felt afraid. That was OK, Kuhn said. Fear could be harnessed, channeled toward dominating the challenges that stood in his way. But for now, he just needed to focus on feeling the seams of the baseball, on capturing the feeling of those seams sliding off his fingers, pitch by pitch. He told Matzek not to worry about where the ball ended up, to focus only on that physical sensation. “You reward that feeling,” Kuhn says. “You’re just telling that subconscious part of your brain, ‘This is good. This is good. This is good.’”

His velocity was mediocre, down from the high 90s to the high 80s. His mechanics had devolved into an incoherent mess. His fear still lived near the surface of his brain and body. But Matzek noticed a subtle shift. “When you feel fear, fight,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. When we feel fear, how do we use that energy to go into fight mode instead of the freeze mode?” Throw by throw, he believed he was figuring it out.

After a week with Kuhn, he returned home, newly confident. He now believed, for the first time in months, that he could make it back to the big leagues. A few teams had interest in bringing him in on a minor league contract for the 2018 season. He was, after all, still only 27, still a former first-round pick. The Mariners invited him to spring training, but when he arrived, the yips came back. “I could play catch and only throw the ball away once or twice,” he says. “But bullpens were shaky and innings were shaky. I’m surviving, not thriving.” Matzek says a Mariners official recommended that he try playing independent, going somewhere he’d get guaranteed innings.

He talked to the Texas AirHogs, a team based in Arlington, and told them exactly what he needed. A guarantee that he could play with their team for an entire season. That no matter what happened, he wouldn’t get released. They agreed and offered him the league minimum. He and Lauren borrowed an RV from McKenry (“A really nice RV,” Matzek wants to emphasize) and set up their new home.

The AirHogs were filled with players from the Chinese national team, which sent its top baseball talent to the U.S. so they could face better competition than they did at home. Matzek was one of a small minority of English-speaking players on the team. His stuff was not great. He told himself that if he pushed too hard, he didn’t know where the ball would end up, so he lived in the high 80s. “Kind of lobbing the ball in,” he says. More often than not, though, the ball crossed the plate. And that, to Matzek, felt like a triumph. “I was starting to find joy in just being able to play baseball,” he says. Throughout his life, he’d never allowed himself to fully revel in the joy the game could give him. He’d been taught as a boy not to gloat, lest he seem cocky, and so he’d always encountered success only as a fulfillment of obligation. “‘Don’t celebrate good things,’” he says, describing the mindset he’d learned as a kid. That meant that emotion could only be expressed in response to failure. “Your mind starts having an interesting conflict where you want to do good consciously, but subconsciously you want to do bad because it wants to have an emotional reaction.”

After his season with the AirHogs ended, he worked with pitching coaches at Driveline, a company that uses motion-capture technology to break down problems with delivery and rebuild mechanics. Right away, his fastball went from the high 80s to the mid-90s. But the final piece was something he’d learned with Kuhn, how to harness his fear, face the fight-flight-freeze question and make himself fight, every single hitter, every single pitch. Before, even when he was pitching well, Matzek had found himself hoping with each pitch that the ball would miss bats but find the plate. Now, “I went into fight mode,” he says. “I got a little bit of, ‘Fuck you,’ you know what I mean? Like, ‘That’s food you’re trying to take off my plate. Get the fuck out of here. I’m going to beat your ass.’ You know what I mean?”

He endured another up, another down. A 2019 minor league stint with the Diamondbacks, where he hit high 90s but felt the wildness return, until they released him from Double-A, in the middle of a road trip, in Mobile, Alabama. He returned to the AirHogs, and there he met Kevin Joseph, a former Cardinals pitcher who happened to speak Chinese and doubled as the team’s pitching coach and translator. He studied Matzek’s tape and made one small suggestion to tweak his mechanics, shortening his arm path. “I kid you not,” Matzek says, “the second he said it, the next pitch, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s it.” Ninety-five miles an hour became 98 or 99. Command sharpened. Consistency improved. Body and mind were working together, finally and fully in sync. He knew right away. Once again, he had big-league-caliber stuff.

And it was then that he started to suffer debilitating panic attacks.

Matzek had always struggled with anxiety. But now he started feeling debilitating claustrophobia on buses and planes, started to feel, day after day, like he couldn’t breathe, like he might die. Within weeks, he stopped sleeping, because every 30 minutes he would wake up with a new attack.

Still, he pitched well enough to get a minor league offer from Atlanta in 2019. He pitched well in both Double- and Triple-A, but when the season ended, he went to see a doctor in California who diagnosed him with a panic disorder. Basically, the doctor told him, he had panic attacks because he was afraid of having panic attacks. “It was a spiral,” Matzek says. The doctor prescribed him anti-anxiety medication. The panic attacks stopped.

“I never realized what normal was supposed to feel like,” he says. Once he got on the meds, he started to think, “‘Oh my God, this is how you’re supposed to feel?’ My whole life I’ve been dealing with this crazy-ass anxiety. And I just thought everybody was dealing with the same anxiety.”

After his successful stint in their minor league system, he went to spring training with Atlanta. Now, though, he felt relieved of the pressure to perform that he’d experienced in the past. “I just showed up and said, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s go play baseball. This is fucking great.’ Like, I believe in myself. I trust myself.”

There in spring training of 2020, Matzek ran into an old friend: former Rockies manager Walt Weiss. “I’m in the training room,” says Weiss, now an assistant with Atlanta, “and I see him across the room. I couldn’t believe it. Tyler Matzek.” Matzek was in camp as a minor leaguer, but Weiss remembers talking to everyone in Atlanta’s organization who would listen: “I don’t know where this kid’s at,” he told them. “The last time I was around him there were some really dark days, but I’ve seen him be really good. If he’s right, he’s gonna help us at the big league level.”

The team took a trip down to Fort Myers, to play Boston. The starter struggled, so they needed an arm to eat a couple of early innings. Matzek got the call. Bases loaded, no one out. Weiss remembers watching from the dugout: “I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I was sweating. My heart was coming out of my chest. The last time I saw this guy, it was not good.”

Matzek struck out the side.

“It seemed like every time we saw him he would just strike everybody out,” says Atlanta manager Brian Snitker. “After a few of those, you’re just thinking, ‘Well, why don’t we let this guy stick around?’”

That was early March 2020. Within weeks, COVID had spread around the globe. Spring training shut down. Everyone went home. But when the season restarted that summer, Snitker kept Matzek in mind, even though Matzek was scheduled to join the Braves’ minor league camp. Snitker talked to Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “What was the name of that left-hander that kept striking everybody out?” he asked. “We need to get him in here.”

Matzek returned. He kept striking people out. Snitker was impressed, but wary. “You wonder how he’s going to handle it,” he says. “You’re not sure how real it is.” He couldn’t project the future, but on a day-by-day basis, it felt real enough.

Lauren and Tyler were sitting together in their Airbnb rental, halfway between the Triple-A and big league stadiums, one day in July 2020, when Matzek’s phone rang. He and Lauren looked at each other. “This is it,” she remembers him saying. She watched her husband answer the phone. She watched his face change as he listened, watched a smile take hold. And that was when she knew. “It’s happening,” she remembers thinking. “It’s finally really happening.”

Fifteen months later, on a late-October night in 2021, Matzek stepped through the bullpen doors at Truist Park in Atlanta and trotted toward the mound to throw the biggest pitches of his life. Atlanta was up three games to two in the National League Championship Series, and leading the Dodgers 4-2 in the seventh inning of Game 6. But reliever Luke Jackson had given up a run, then put runners on second and third with no outs, and now the game hung in the balance, the images of another blown 3-1 lead dancing in the minds of Atlanta fans all across the stadium.

Matzek needed to fix it. For Snitker, there was no other call. Over his year and a half with Atlanta, Matzek had become one of the team’s most trusted relievers, finishing the 2021 regular season with a 2.57 ERA and 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He’d been dominant in the playoffs, pitching nearly every game without giving up a run. Every day, Snitker says, Matzek would knock on the door to his office. “Just so you know,” he’d tell him, “I’m good to go today.” Snitker worried at times about riding him too hard. But now, with the season in doubt, he knew Matzek was the only choice.

Matzek was set to face first baseman Albert Pujols, pinch-hitter Steven Souza Jr., and right fielder Mookie Betts. Back in the dugout, Jackson, who’d been excellent all year, felt hopeful with Matzek on the mound. “When he’s in the zone, he’s an absolute psychopath,” Jackson says. “He’s the best psycho you can have. Because he doesn’t just want to beat you. He wants to dominate you.”

This, Matzek says, emerged from his fall out of the game and his climb back up the mountain. No one I spoke to for this story could remember another pitcher who lost himself to the yips and then returned to dominate as Matzek had. When we spoke, I mentioned Jackson’s quote, calling him a psychopath, and Matzek laughed. “You kind of have to be, right?” He said. “Your job is to come into the most stressful situations you could possibly think of, and you have to like it. You have to enjoy being out there. You’ve gotta be a little psycho to enjoy that shit.”

Matzek got a called strike one against Pujols, then threw a slider outside the zone, before causing Pujols to foul off a pitch and then throwing a slider that Pujols chased but could not reach. Strikeout swinging. One down. Matzek and Jackson are close friends, and it’s hard for Matzek not to think back to the workouts he did with Kuhn and McKenry, throwing the medicine ball up the hill while McKenry did squat after squat, pushing down his own pain so he could relieve the pain of the friend he loved. Now, while Jackson sat on the bench watching, Matzek thought back to those lessons, to finding higher levels of performance by focusing less on himself. “I want to save my boy,” he remembers thinking. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Next up came Steven Souza Jr. Slider, strike one, called. A fastball out of the zone, then a fastball for a second, swinging strike. And then another fastball, leaving Souza frozen, for a called strike three. Six years ago Matzek couldn’t throw a baseball. Three years ago he threw in the 80s out of fear of what might happen if his velocity increased. Now, in the most high-leverage of situations, the number on the radar gun read 99.2 miles per hour. Two down. One more batter to go. “For so long I wasn’t able to compete,” Matzek says. “And now I’m competing at the highest level, with people who are the highest level, and they’re focusing at their highest level. You’re getting the best of the best. And I want to go out there and I want to see what I got. Let’s go. Let’s compete. You know what I mean?”

Still, runners remained on second and third, Atlanta still clinging to a two-run lead. Up next came Mookie Betts, a former MVP. Matzek started with two fastballs, both taken for strikes. He was one pitch away from preserving the lead.

Matzek did not know what was yet to come. He didn’t know that soon he’d be called on to pitch the eighth, and that when he returned he’d retire the side. He didn’t know that closer Will Smith would get it done in the ninth, that his teammates would douse each other in champagne that night, celebrating Atlanta’s first trip to the World Series this century. He didn’t know that he’d continue to dominate against the Astros in the World Series, allowing only one run in 5 1/3 innings, and that soon he’d parade with his teammates through Atlanta, a world champion, considered by many around the organization as the team’s playoff MVP. All he knew was that one of the best baseball players on the planet stood in the batter’s box before him, and that in that moment, when he felt that inevitable fear, Matzek faced three familiar options.

Fight. Flight. Freeze.

Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud called for another fastball. Matzek remembers standing on the mound thinking, “Do I be careful with him? Or not?” And just before he threw the pitch that would strike Betts out swinging, before he would scream his way off the mound and into the dugout, reveling in the kind of emotion a younger Matzek would have never indulged, Matzek remembers setting up for his pitch with a simple thought.

“Fuck it,” he told himself. “Let’s go.

An earlier version of this piece inaccurately stated that Matzek struck out Albert Pujols on a fastball. It was a slider.

Sports Cards Nonsense

MLB Hall of Fame Card Values, NFL Price Updates, and Mailbag Questions

R2C2

Adam Wainwright on His Baseball Past, Present, and Future

The Full Go With Jason Goff

Bears Hire Ryan Poles, What’s Next With Alex Brown, Another Bulls Injury, Baseball’s Hall of Hypocrisy

View all stories in MLB