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