Await­ing word

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY BARRY SVRLUGA barry.svrluga@wash­post.com

For­mer Ge­orge­town Prep pitcher Michael Mat­uella still hopes to be a top pick this week de­spite arm surgery.

Michael Mat­uella wasn’t go­ing to let on. He wasn’t go­ing to tell any­one that he woke up on a Satur­day in March and couldn’t quite straighten out his right arm. He had an MRI exam that showed a com­pletely nor­mal ul­nar col­lat­eral lig­a­ment, and with that came a clear con­science: He could pitch. What­ever both­ered him the pre­vi­ous day — when his 89th pitch against Pitts­burgh sailed high and away and his 90th did the same and his 91st man­aged to get to the top of the strike zone but was cracked for a base hit — surely was tem­po­rary.

“I was ba­si­cally pray­ing that I would wake up the next Fri­day and feel like, ‘Oh, it’s gone,’ ” Mat­uella said. “Like magic.”

But Mat­uella’s sit­u­a­tion has never in­volved magic, not in health or per­for­mance, not in ac­com­plish­ment or po­ten­tial. By the time he rose that Satur­day morn­ing in March, he was a tow­er­ing 6-foot-6 right-han­der at Duke, a pitcher con­sid­ered among a hand­ful of play­ers who might be se­lected with the first over­all pick in the ma­jor league base­ball draft, which be­gins Mon­day. Blessed by ge­net­ics, yes. But magic hadn’t put him in that po­si­tion.

There was no magic in the 5:30 a.m. alarms and 45-minute drives from his home in Great Falls, over the Po­tomac River on the Belt­way to a Mary­land gym so he could build up his body be­fore he re­ported to Ge­orge­town Prep for high school. There’s no magic in his com­mit­ment to the process of be­com­ing a great pitcher, not nec­es­sar­ily ob­sess­ing about the re­sults, which in high school were de­cid­edly un­even. There’s no magic in his un­flag­ging and pre­co­cious be­lief in him­self.

How could that con­vic­tion hold, though, if he couldn’t so much as straighten his arm? He said noth­ing to any­one, and the next week, he took the mound against Bos­ton Col­lege in a se­ries that had been moved to Ne­wark, Del., be­cause of the bru­tal New Eng­land win­ter. The tem­per­a­ture was in the mid-40s, raw and windy. His first warmup toss felt ter­ri­ble.

He pitched any­way and walked three men in the first in­ning. He fin­ished one pitch, grabbed his el­bow and then re­leased it quickly, hop­ing no one saw.

“Towatch him walk guys, to see him not throw­ing his fast­ball for strikes,” Duke Coach Chris Pol­lard said, “you’re just go­ing, ‘Some­thing’s not right here.’ ”

Mat­uella’s fast­ball tops out at around 98 mph. Yet by the fifth in­ning, he couldn’t get his arm through the mo­tion enough to get the pitch to come down any­where near the strike zone. So he shook off his catcher again and again, slider af­ter slider. He fin­ished with five walks, more than he had ever is­sued at Duke. He gave up six hits and six runs, though just two were earned. He couldn’t com­plete the fifth.

Af­ter­ward, Lew Mat­uella ap­proached his son.

“Just flush that one,” he re­mem­bers say­ing. “It’s one of those games.”

Michael looked at his fa­ther in­cred­u­lously.

“Do you re­ally think I would have walked that many guys,” he said, “if my arm wasn’t killing me?” ‘Me­thod­i­cal, no mat­ter what’

That Michael Mat­uella de­vel­oped into one of the top prospects in this year’s draft is both un­fath­omable and makes com­plete sense. He cer­tainly looks the part, broad-shoul­dered and longlimbed. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see how 98 mph could come from such a frame, even as he sat at the ta­ble just off the kitchen in his par­ents’ home near the end of a Great Falls cul de sac. The Mat­uel­las’ neigh­bor­hood is quiet, just around the cor­ner from the Great Falls Lit­tle League fields, where Michael would ask his fa­ther to go hit nearly ev­ery night.

Some­how, in this gen­teel en­vi­ron­ment, he de­vel­oped not only a pitcher’s body but a kick-your butt at­ti­tude. Late last month, in be­tween bites of sand­wiches his mother had pre­pared for lunch, he ca­su­ally de­scribed his ap­proach to pitch­ing his ju­nior year at Duke and in do­ing so re­vealed a cock­sure edge.

“This year, I was able to put any run­ners on base or any hit­ter I was fac­ing to­tally out of the pic­ture be­cause I just knew I was bet­ter,” Mat­uella said. “I knew I had put in the work. I knew it didn’t re­ally mat­ter where the run­ner was or who I was fac­ing, that I was go­ing to do what­ever it took to get the guy out. I was just bet­ter.”

The “what­ever it took” piece of that equa­tion was formed early. When the Mat­uel­las lived in sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia, they had a bas­ket­ball hoop in their drive­way. Michael’s brother Tyler — older by four years — would make bas­ket af­ter bas­ket. But at age 5, Michael strug­gled to reach the reg­u­la­tion 10-foot hoops. So his par­ents of­fered to lower the bas­ket. His re­sponse: No.

In­stead, 5-year-old Michael grew strong enough to make a shot. He fol­lowed by set­ting a goal to make 1,000 bas­kets. He would grind through this task, count­ing only made bas­kets, pro­vid­ing up­dates to vis­it­ing grand­par­ents — “I’m at 483!” — day af­ter day. No cheat­ing. No help.

“That is how Michael has ap­proached thing af­ter thing in his life,” said his mother, Me­lanie. “There’s that long-term goal, the for­est, which is some­thing at the end of the day. But he works on the trees. He kind of is in the trees — whether it’s sports, whether it’s aca­demics, whether it’s what­ever.”

He gave up bas­ket­ball af­ter his fresh­man year at Ge­orge­town Prep to fo­cus solely on base­ball, a de­ci­sion that was met with mixed feel­ings from his par­ents but made for a fu­ture only he could see. He en­tered high school at 5 feet 9, but by the end of that bas­ket­ball sea­son, he stood 6 feet. By the fall of his sopho­more year, he was a full 6-4. As a stu­dent, he was trudg­ing for­ward, on his way to earn­ing Ge­orge­town Prep’s award for the high­est grade-point av­er­age as a se­nior. As an ath­lete, he was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son.

“Any time you have a kid who’s 15, 16 years old that grows that quickly, you’re go­ing to have some is­sues — co­or­di­na­tion is­sues,” said Chris Ro­driguez, the coach at Prep. “Every­body could see it: Here’s a big guy, and they said, ‘He should be do­ing this. He should be do­ing that.’ But he was re­ally try­ing to dis­cover how to con­trol that body, and he re­ally had to fight through that.”

So that’s what he did. There were lousy days, “lots of them,” Michael said. But his re­sponse was to come home, eat din­ner, do his homework, head to bed, then greet that 5:30 a.m. wake-up to start the cy­cle again.

“There wasn’t any­thing he did that wasn’t cal­cu­lated and in­ten­tional,” Ro­driguez said. “I said, ‘I could care less about re­sults. I could care less about wins and losses. With that ap­proach and that kind of body, it’s go­ing to come.’ But you’re not get­ting im­me­di­ate suc­cess, and you’re deal­ing with a lot of fail­ure. But he was me­thod­i­cal about it, no mat­ter what the sit­u­a­tion.”

When he got to Duke in fall 2012, Pol­lard and his staff were new, not even the crew that had re­cruited Mat­uella. When they ar­rived, they had to re­search the in­com­ing class of fresh­men, of which Mat­uella was “ab­so­lutely the most un­der-the-radar guy.” That fall, when the pitch­ers first got to­gether to have a light long­toss ses­sion, Pol­lard saw the ball come out of Mat­uella’s hand and walked di­rectly to him.

“What was your ve­loc­ity like at the high school level?” he asked. Mat­uella hadn’t been sub­jected to a radar gun too fre­quently, but he fig­ured his fast­ball was 87 or 88 mph. Pol­lard was all but aghast.

“You’re go­ing to throw a lot harder one day,” Pol­lard told him, and they went about tweak­ing his me­chan­ics and free­ing his mind.

“They ba­si­cally said, ‘See the sign, see the tar­get and then throw the ball as hard as you can through that tar­get,’ ” Mat­uella re­mem­bered.

In his first out­ing that spring, Mat­uella hit 94 mph against Florida; against Florida State, he hit 95. He was a dif­fer­ent pitcher. He was a prospect.

Ready to be drafted

On the first day of April, Michael Mat­uella had an ap­point­ment with a doc­tor, an MRI exam and an evening en­trepreneur­ship class. In the mid­dle of the class, he got a call from the ath­letic trainer for Duke’s base­ball team, which he let go to voice mail. Next came the text: The doc­tor wants to see you ASAP.

Mat­uella in­stantly broke into a sweat. “What does this mean? The doc­tor had never wanted to meet with me be­fore.” He left mid-class and met with Dean Tay­lor, a sur­geon and pro­fes­sor in Duke’s depart­ment of or­thopaedic surgery.

“Are you sure you didn’t feel a pop?” the doc­tor asked.

“I’m 100 per­cent sure,” Mat­uella replied.

“Well, your UCL is not at­tached to your ulna,” Tay­lor said. “It’s com­pletely torn.”

That’s when one of the best base­ball prospects in the coun­try lost it, sob­bing for the next 10 min­utes. A com­pletely torn UCL meant Tommy John surgery. It meant the end of his Duke sea­son.

“I can’t do what I love do­ing,” Mat­uella re­mem­bered think­ing, “for a full year.”

When Mat­uella re­counted the story, he was nearly two months re­moved from the mo­ment. When he leaned back and lifted his right arm, the stitches were right there, on the un­der­side of the el­bow, left­over from the pro­ce­dure per­formed by James An­drews. He is, to the base­ball public, a statis­tic and a cu­rios­ity — an­other high-end pitcher to have a lig­a­ment in his el­bow re­placed by a ten­don from else­where in his body.

The Mat­uel­las know now that such a fate hasn’t af­fected the prospects of some re­cent draftees. They know East Carolina right-han­der Jeff Hoffman un­der­went Tommy John surgery dur­ing his ju­nior year and was se­lected with the ninth pick in last year’s draft by the Toronto Blue Jays; Hoffman is now throw­ing 98mph again. They know Las Ve­gas high schooler Erick Fedde had Tommy John surgery two days be­fore the draft, and the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als took him 18th.

“A team could eas­ily take him in the first round,” one scout said.

“Cer­tain teams won’t be scared at all,” an­other said.

On Mon­day night, Mat­uella will gather with his fam­ily in their Great Falls home and watch the draft. He is pre­pared to be taken in the first round but un­cer­tain he will be. He would pre­fer to re­hab his el­bow un­der the watch of a ma­jor league team but is pre­pared to re­turn to Duke as a se­nior should his health limit the money of­fered to him this year.

“I just hope a team eval­u­ates me on my fu­ture as a player as op­posed to right now,” Mat­uella said, “be­cause there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m go­ing to come back stronger from this.”

That, Mat­uella be­lieves, will be be­cause of how he ap­proaches the re­hab: with work. Magic, he knows, will have noth­ing to do with it.

JON GAR­DINER/DUKE PHOTOGRAPHY

Duke’sMichaelMat­uella, who throws 98 mph, had Tommy John surgery two months ago.

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