Two years later, Matzek was on the mound at Truist Park in the seventh inning of an eventual 4-2 Atlanta Braves win in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the last line of defense between the Braves and a Game 7 they desperately hoped to avoid.
And there they were, the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers, charging back from the brink like they always do, with the tying runs on second and third and no one out, with brand-name right-handed hitters due.
Matzek blew them all away, stunning three straight Dodgers into submission with a fearless fastball that seemed to freeze everyone, including former MVPs Albert Pujols and Mookie Betts.
He bounced off the mound like gravity had ceased to exist, and heck, maybe it had. Matzek’s escape was so improbable, so decisive, that it seemed to defy all the laws of baseball physics.
“[Betts] is so hard to strike out. That was incredible,” said Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ president of baseball operations. “He took the ball every day. Can’t say enough about him. We don’t win the series without everything that he did.”
The whole situation was nothing new to the Braves, who spent all year fending off the fatal blow. They powered through season-ending injuries to would-be ace Mike Soroka and all-star Ronald Acuña Jr. They stiff-armed the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies when those teams tried to push past the Braves down the stretch.
Even the hit that gave them the lead in the fourth inning was a product of survival: Deadline acquisition turned playoff hero Eddie Rosario fouled off pitch after pitch before hitting a line drive into the right field corner, a three-run shot that held up as the difference in a win that secured Atlanta its first pennant since 1999.
“I think this is the definition of pure joy,” said Freddie Freeman, the longtime anchor of this Atlanta team, the beloved first baseman and reigning National League MVP.
“We’ve had 40-foot potholes that we’ve hit, like humongous speed bumps — I mean, everything you could possibly see in a road, we hit,” Freeman said. “We still somehow overcame all that.”
Something about the Braves had the feel of destiny, though, of course, destiny is most easily declared in hindsight. That the team with the fewest wins of any playoff team this year would ultimately win the National League pennant was hardly preordained. But a few months after the heart and soul of this franchise, Hank Aaron, passed away, Atlanta players launched themselves out of the dugout to celebrate on a field with Aaron’s No. 44 painted prominently in the outfield.
These Braves aren’t exactly the 88-win team they seemed to be. This team played .650 baseball over the last two months of the regular season. Atlanta has not lost consecutive games since mid-September. Until Game 5, they hadn’t lost a game by more than two runs since August. They have won 10 of their past 11 at Truist Park, that one loss coming in the post-celebration haze the day after they clinched their fourth straight division title.
Turning regular season success into postseason celebrations often takes time, or at least, more time than those with a vested interest hope it will. The Braves made the playoffs for three straight years, inching closer to the World Series in each of them, falling a game short against these Dodgers last year after taking a 3-1 lead in the NLCS. But they aren’t out of place now. Like the Dodgers or the Houston Astros, this is now their October tradition, too.
They have been here regularly enough that consistency in getting to the playoffs is no longer enough, that they’re surrounded by one of those dreaded playoff narratives, the “can’t win the big one.”
“We had to deal with the questions,” Freeman said. “We took that down real fast.”
The city has waited quite some time: The Braves are in the World Series for the first time since 1999, near the end of the last Atlanta dynasty, the one built around Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, around Chipper and Andruw Jones, around Javy Lopez and Brian Jordan.
This iteration belongs to Freeman, who has been the star at the center of Atlanta’s universe for four straight postseason appearances. It belongs to Ozzie Albies, the speedy second baseman who doubled with two outs in the first inning to give Atlanta an early chance.
It also belongs to Austin Riley, the third baseman who emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate with a stellar regular season. Riley smashed a two-out double to left to score Albies and give Atlanta an early lead.
The Braves hope this team will also soon belong to Ian Anderson, their 23-year-old former first-round pick who emerged as a more consistent top-of-the-rotation presence this year. Anderson lasted just three innings in Game 2. He left Game 6 tied after four strong innings.
In the fifth, Manager Brian Snitker pinch hit for him with Ehire Adrianza, who boosted his manager’s perceived IQ with a double that put runners on second and third with two outs for Rosario — the hottest hitter in the postseason, whose leadoff single was his 13th hit of the series and tied the franchise record for hits in a single NLCS.
He fell behind 0-2, fouled off three pitches to stay alive, then hit a line drive into the right field corner. A minute or so later, he was marching out of the dugout to acknowledge a crowd that didn’t know his name in June but was chanting it by late October. Rosario was named the series MVP.
“This is something I always hoped for, regardless of what anyone said or thought of me, But like I’ve said before, I want more,” Rosario said through an interpreter. “This is obviously my greatest accomplishment of my career so far.”
Whether Walker Buehler should have been in the game to face him is a reasonable question. Buehler had thrown around 70 pitches, his stuff dulling somewhat, the kind of moment at which a manager has to choose whether to stick with a tired ace or go to a matchup lefty. Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts had the lefty ready for Rosario if he wanted him. He chose to stick with Buehler.
Max Scherzer is a part of this story, too. The future Hall of Famer and annual Cy Young contender was scheduled to pitch Game 6 with the Dodgers’ season on the line, the exact scenario for which they acquired him, everything going to plan.
But late Friday, he told the Dodgers he couldn’t do that. His arm was still dead, overworked, too tired to go. He and the Dodgers decided Buehler was the better option on short rest. All told, the Dodgers got 17 combined innings in six games out of their once-vaunted starting rotation, a group that was supposed to be too deep to lose, then wasn’t deep enough.
But for all that went wrong for the Dodgers, Atlanta also had to beat them. Rosario was better than the Dodgers all series. Matzek, the kind of improbable hero who always becomes inevitable this time of year, was better when it counted most.
“Just to get to that point, it’s what I was dreaming about, even when I had my catch partner standing against a fence that was probably 30 feet tall, hoping that it would stay within the fence so that he could grab it and get it back to me,” said Matzek, describing a reality probably unfamiliar to many of the top prospects surrounding him on this and other playoff rosters.
Any other team could have signed Matzek out of the American Association. It was Braves Vice President of Scouting Dana Brown who saw him in the summer of 2019 and insisted Anthopoulos take a chance, pounding the table, calling Anthopoulos over and over until he signed him. So it happened that the Braves plucked Matzek from the brink of obscurity. Saturday night, he returned the favor.