Matz, one of the top pitching prospects in the Mets' organization did not just start both, he was dominant -- twice. For Savannah in 2013, the southpaw shut out a solid Hagerstown offense through 5 2/3 innings with nine strikeouts, while allowing only one runner to third, and that came in an inning with a pair of infield basehits. For Binghamton in 2014, working against Richmond, Matz took a no-hitter, with 11 strikeouts into the eighth inning in a 1-0 game. However, after a pair of hits, he bequeathed two runners to Hansel Robles, who allowed one to score.
Matz's two start "Clinching Game" combined line is the stuff makes fans drool: 0.69 ERA, 13 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 20 K. He struck out 41 percent of opposing batters in these two starts and walked 8 percent.
However, despite the fact that he was excellent twice, in big spots, the games were not similar according to Matz. Discussing the clincher for Binghamton, he said, "I think that was the best game I've thrown in pro-ball. My stuff was the best [I've had it]. Everything was just clicking that night." In particular he cited his command, which allowed him to throw every pitch with "conviction." The stuff is real for Matz. He throws his fastball in the mid-90s, and has enough feel to project his changeup as an above average big league pitch.
The way that Matz attacked hitters had changed between the end of the 2013 season and the 2014 season. His main focus, in terms of his arsenal in 2014, was improving his curveball.
In the 2013 clincher for Savannah, the deuce was not a weapon. "I think I remember someone who was charting saying to me that I threw six curveballs in that game, and not one of them was for a strike. My fastball was my out pitch. They were swinging at high fastballs, up and away, neck high fastballs. I think I struck out a bunch of guys in that game just letting the fastball rip up in the zone."
In Double-A, against better, more disciplined hitters, the neck-high fastball, is far less effective. The Binghamton clincher, in terms of pitch usage, Matz said was "completely different." Describing his effort against Richmond, Matz said, "I had a lot of strikeouts on curveballs. I would start guys off with curveballs the second or third time around the lineup. I was throwing my fastball down and away, a lot. And I'd come in with my fastball late instead of just letting it rip, neck high."
Matz made four starts in the playoffs, two each in 2013 and 2014, and while extrapolating anything serious from two starts is a dangerous business, he certainly has been good in the playoffs, and better in clinching games.
He said it's not because he was trying. "During the playoffs, I try not to make it seem like it's anything different. I try to go out and do the same thing [as I did in the regular season]. I don't know if its subconsciously, the adrenaline making my pitches sharper, or what. I really just try to treat it as a regular season game," he told MMiLB.
In addition to an improved curveball, Matz enjoyed deploying another new (to him) technique in 2014: more detailed scouting reports on hitters mixed with a better understanding of game situations.
"When you know guys' weakness, it's almost like you have another pitch, you have another weapon against him," he explained.
Matz began reviewing each hitter with pitching coach Phil Regan before games in advanced-A St. Lucie to begin 2014, and then added more detail when he met Glenn Abbott in Binghamton. In Savannah, he was more focused on executing his own game plan with a few "on the fly" adjustments to opposing hitters.
Matz feels that he is managing games much better. This makes sense given how little game action he had in the first three years of his professional career thanks to 2010 Tommy John surgery. He began the 2013 season with 29 professional innings to his credit. Including the playoffs, he made 28 starts in 2013. Now, in 2014, he worked to develop a feel.
"You can't just be a robot out there," he said. "If the number three hitter is coming up, and there's a guy on second base, and one out, he's coming up swinging, trying to hit a fastball. So I'd definitely say, in those situations, I wouldn't attack him as I normally would."
The B-Mets won game three on a walk-off Jayce Boyd double in the bottom of the ninth for a 2-1 win. While Matz was in the game, it was either scoreless, or Binghamton held a 1-0 lead. With every pitch of his night, the batter at the plate represented a go-ahead run, or a tying run. That tense atmosphere sharpened Matz's focus.
"My thought was "don't make a mistake" because it was such a close game," Matz said. "I think that helped me take the no-hitter so far into the game."
Sometimes, in other games, Matz would challenge hitters at the bottom of the order with fastballs. Not so on that night.
"in such a close game, I didn't want any guys on," he said.
Matz's situational ability showed up in his performance in the regular season. With the bases empty, batters in advanced Single-A and Double-A hit a combined .290/.335/.382 against him in 313 plate appearances. However, as soon as as runner reached, and he bore down, Matz held opponents to a .203/.268/.267 line in 263 plate appearances. This is not a totally new skill. In 2013, batters had a .642 OPS against Matz with a .340 BABIP with the bases empty in 245 PA, but as soon as the first man reached, he dropped those number to a .557 OPS and a .287 BABIP in 183 PA.
Some pitchers show a repeated ability to pitch to situations, and do so very effectively. For example, James Shields is appreciably better with runners on base, because his pitch mix is more unpredictable. He's also earned the nickname, "Big Game James."
If Matz can replicate his big game hunting in the minors in the big leagues, Mets fans will surely be tempted to submit their own nicknames to improve on "Long Island's Own..." Is Steely Steven too much? How about Magical Matz?