Perhaps Mariano Rivera, arguably the greatest relief pitcher of all time, said it best when asked about the mindset it takes to come into a tight ballgame and register the final few outs to secure a win.
“I get the ball, I throw the ball and then I take a shower,” he said.
Simple, direct and to the point.
It didn’t take long for Kansas State catcher Blair DeBord to see that Jake Matthys possessed those same qualities.
“I remember when we brought him in (his) first game,” DeBord said. “Coach said ‘We’re bringing Matthys in.’ I can remember thinking ‘why are we bringing him in?’ Not really understanding, because I’d caught him in practice, but I didn’t really get it.”
Matthys got the call in the bottom of the sixth inning with two outs and two runners on. George Mason, K-State’s opponent that day, led the Wildcats 6-3 when Matthys stepped to the mound.
“His fastball command was kind of off and I called seven breaking balls in a row, and he threw the same exact pitch and I was like ‘Wow, that’s pretty special,’” DeBord said.
Matthys proceeded to get the Wildcats out of the sixth-inning jam, then retire six of the next eight batters with three strikeouts and no walks over 2 1/3 scoreless innings to earn the win as K-State came back to win 7-6.
“I’ve had that trust in him since that day to throw any pitch in any situation,” DeBord said.
When prodded enough Matthys will shoot it straight, though he prefers to let his actions on the mound do the talking.
“Honestly, I kind of go out there a little bit cocky,” the right-hander said. “I try not to talk about it very much, but when I’m going out to the mound I’m in this position for a reason. I’m the best there is. I would put myself up against anybody in the nation when I’m on the mound.
“Off the field, I try not to talk about stuff like that, because that’s just arrogant and annoying.”
Matthys, who credits his mental toughness to his time spent as a two-time all-conference hockey player in high school, might seem nonchalant to an outside observer.
According to DeBord, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“He has a certain way he goes about his business,” DeBord said. “That’s with practice and even preparation… Jake has perfected his rhythm that he gets into, and the way he prepares for every game. He eats the same thing every time. He sleeps a certain amount.”
Matthys does his thing and mows ‘em down.
Matthys’ lively high-80s sinker, changeup and slider led to a banner season in 2013. He was second in the Big 12 with nine saves and compiled a 9-1 record in a school-record 33 appearances with an ERA of just 1.98. He had a team-best strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 5-to-1 and opposing batters hit just .205 with Matthys on the mound. He allowed just three of 33 inherited batters to score.
Matthys became the first Wildcat in school history to be named Big 12 Freshman of the Year, was named First-Team All-Big 12, and earned two Freshman All-America honors.
The personal accolades are nice, but it was the Wildcats’ team success that really impacted the 19-year-old from Spring Lake Park, Minn.
“It was fantastic,” Matthys said. “I’ve never been a part of a team like that in my life. My high school team lost, we were below .500 every year. To come in and have an impact like I did, and have the guys behind me trusting me. It was a feeling that I’ve never felt before.”
DeBord gushed about Matthys’ short memory and ability just keep pitching no matter the outcome of his last pitch.
But one thing Matthys might never forget is the feeling of anguish after K-State lost in the finals of the Super Regional last June in Corvallis, Ore. — a 4-3 loss to No. 3 Oregon State in which Matthys got his first start — that digs in his craw as K-State prepares for the 2014 season.
As far as Matthys is concerned, it’s Omaha or bust for the Wildcats in 2013.
“Everybody expects us to get to Omaha,” he said. “We expect to get to Omaha. Anything short of that, I feel like isn’t good enough for us. Everybody’s been working hard in the weight room, in the field, conditioning. Everybody’s real determined to make that next step and get to Omaha.”
With lofty expectations and K-State being tabbed as the favorite to repeat as Big 12 Champions, the Wildcats know they’re likely to get every opponent’s best shot. The team’s confident closer is just fine with that.
“I do (like it), but that just means we’re going to have a target on our back, which means we’re going to have to come out and play every day,” he said. “There are no off days in this league. Everybody’s tough and having a target on our back will actually keep us sharper.”
With an injury sidelining him for much of the offseason, the sophomore took the opportunity to sharpen his craft in areas other than the practice field, including developing his leadership skills.
“I like to work on my mental game, even when I can’t throw,” Matthys said. “So, there’s always something you can work on even when you’re hurt and you can’t go out there with the guys, even though it really sucks. You just try to help out with the freshman and stuff.”
It’s a group of freshmen Matthys, not surprisingly, is supremely confident in.
“Honestly I think they’ve all made big strides from the beginning of the fall,” he said. (Jake) Fromson, Ethan Landon. They are the big ones that stand out in my head, but I think they all have a chance to make something happen.”
That’s what Matthys wants from a pitching staff some said was carried by the Wildcats’ high-powered offense for much of last season.
“We saw last year what our hitting can do,” Matthys said. “Our hitting won us a lot of games. We don’t want to be the ones losing the games. We want to be able to compete with them, compete with ourselves and throw the best guys out there and just trust everybody that’s on the mound.”