With every day that goes by, with every game that’s checked off on the schedule, Steven Matz’ golden left arm is healing. Every day, his surgically repaired elbow gets closer to where it needs to be.
He won’t pitch in 2011—that much is clear. While Mets fans might worry when, if ever, they’ll see the team’s 2009 second-round draft pick take the mound in Flushing, the 20-year-old graduate of Ward Melville High School is biding his time, per the instruction of doctors and trainers in the system. The ‘09 winner of the Yastrzemski Award, given annually to Suffolk County’s top player, is taking everything in stride, not because of the $895,000 signing bonus that serves as one big safety net, but because he knows patience now will benefit him and the franchise later.
“I’m pretty content with it,” Matz said. “Hopefully this time off makes up for it on the back end of my career.”
He threw three innings during extended spring training last year—after not pitching at all during regular spring training—before it was determined that his ulnar collateral ligament was 80 percent torn. The next move? The infamous Tommy John surgery.
Recovery from the procedure is generally a 12- to 18-month process. In the baseball world, there are fewer early comebacks than there are setbacks caused by attempts at early comebacks. This spring, Matz threw batting practice and a 30-pitch simulated game. He experienced tightness that gradually worsened and was shut down until 2012. What he saw though—a 92 to 95 mile per hour fastball and a curve with some bite—was encouraging.
It’s quicker than the 88-91 he displayed in high school. The time off has allowed him to put on muscle and rest his pitching shoulder. Still, Matz must rest further.
“It’s been tough to be patient, but doctors have told me that I’ll be fine after the surgery,” he said. “The rehab I do for my shoulder, the rest, that I’ve put on a couple pounds and am still filling out, it’s all had something to do with [the added velocity].”
Matz went 6-1 as a senior, posting a 0.26 earned run average while whiffing 74 batters in 54 innings. He pitched in front of a herd of major league scouts every outing, most notably when he locked horns with Patchogue-Medford righthander Marcus Stroman, now at Duke and a member of Team USA. The Patriots captured the league title that year; it was the first time they won it since 1975.
He was selected by the Mets, the team he grew up rooting for, but contract negotiations were drawn out. Days before he was slated to enroll at Coastal Carolina University and mere minutes before the MLB deadline for draftees to sign, he opted to forgo college and turn pro.
“It definitely wasn’t an easy decision,” Matz said. “People were telling me that I’d get more money out of college, this and that, and I actually booked a flight and had a class two days [after the deadline]. It was pretty stressful. I had no idea what I was doing.”
If he’d gone to college, he’d be entering his junior year academically without a single inning under his belt. Instead, he’s in Port St. Lucie with personnel monitoring his every move. He stretches, plays pepper with teammates, takes in Gulf Coast League games. It isn’t exactly how Matz envisioned his pro career would begin, but he knows he’s been fortunate nevertheless.
“I really enjoy pro ball,” Matz said. “I’m happy with the decision I made.”