Story by Jim Sumner | Photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt
It’s a little more than a thousand miles from Hickory, N.C., to Arlington, Tex. Averaging 60 miles per hours, you can drive the distance in about 17 hours.
Or you could fly, which would be quicker but likely more expensive.
But Michael Matuella is looking at different variables. Matuella’s route from Hickory to Arlington depends not on transportation routes but on the health of his surgically-repaired right elbow.
One of the greatest what-ifs in Duke baseball history, Matuella is a member of the Class A Hickory Crawdads of the South Atlantic League, a farm team of the Texas Rangers. He’s now working his way back from years of arm troubles, pitching regularly, albeit cautiously, for the first time in over two years.
Matuella grew up in the Philadelphia area, becoming a big Phillies fan. His family moved to Great Falls, Va., and he graduated from Georgetown High School, on the other side of the Potomac.
The 6-6 righthander was lightly recruited out of high school. But he was a superb student and thus a perfect match for Chris Pollard’s rebuilding program at Duke. He was actually recruited to Duke by Pollard’s predecessor Sean McNally.
Matuella had a promising freshman season (in Pollard’s first year with the Blue Devils) but exploded as a sophomore, in 2014, with a 2.78 earned run average and 68 strikeouts in 59.1 innings.
He entered his junior season touted as a potential top pick in the 2015 MLB draft. A back problem known as spondylosis had limited Matuella’s innings and he needed to show pro teams he was healthy and could go deeper into a season.
It started out well. Matuella threw six scoreless innings in a season-opening win over California and compiled a 1.08 ERA over 25 innings.
But he didn’t feel right in his March 20 outing against Pittsburgh and it got worse a week later against Boston College.
“It was pretty sudden,” he says now. “I felt something at the end of the Pitt game but it wasn’t terrible. There was no sudden pop or anything like that, so I kept at it. But it did not feel good the next outing. It went from hurts to really hurts.”
A MRI showed that Matuella had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. His subsequent Tommy John surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrews, one of the top surgeons for that procedure.
Arm surgery isn’t necessarily a deal-killer for major league teams these days. East Carolina pitcher Jeff Hoffman was the ninth pick of the 2014 draft and is in the Colorado Rockies rotation, barely three years after his Tommy John surgery.
But Matuella also had the back issues and he had thrown only 141 innings in three college seasons. So some teams backed off.
“I was willing to come back to Duke if I didn’t like my draft position,” he says. “I know what I’m capable of.”
It didn’t come to that. The Rangers selected Matuella in the third round of the 2015 draft, 78th overall.
Matuella had the option of coming back to Duke. An Academic All-ACC player, he’s close to his degree in economics. But he was impressed by Texas. “They had done a ton of research. They laid out a recovery plan. They had a timeline.”
It helped that Texas offered him a signing bonus “above slot,” that is more money than usually allotted for a third-round pick.
Matuella spent most of the rest of 2015 back in Virginia, concentrating on isometric range-of-motion exercises designed to keep his right arm from atrophying.
He stared throwing that September, starting off at 20 feet on flat ground, eventually gently tossing off a mound. Everything was on track for a 2016 return. Texas sent Matuella to Spokane in the Northwest League, for a June start.
He lasted three innings.
“I felt tightness in my elbow,” he recalls. “Then I cooled down and I started feeling pain. We decided to shut it down.”
Matuella had stem-cell injections but avoided another surgery.
With encouragement from the Rangers, Matuella came back to Duke for the fall 2016 semester. He’s now only a semester shy of his degree and will finish that up when circumstances permit.
But he’s busy right now. The proper combination of rest and rehabilitation gave Texas enough confidence to send Matuella to Hickory.
And the back problems have not resurfaced.
Jose Jaimes is the Hickory pitching coach. He says the goal is simple. “We want him to finish the year healthy. He’s doing really good. He’s smart, he works hard and he follows instructions.”
There are limits. Matuella is starting but isn’t going too deep into games. Two, three, maybe four innings. Jaimes says five innings is probably Matuella’s limit for the season.
“This is what I expected,” Matuella says. “I’m slowly building it up. Ideally, I’ll take the ball every time I’m supposed to, pitch and pitch well and build from that.”
Matuella hit 98 miles-per-hour at Duke. He says he staying away from radar guns but he is focusing on his fastball.
“The recipe is a heavy dose of fastballs. Fastball command is the goal.”
Jaimes confirms that the fastball is the key pitch in the Texas organization.
“We believe that the best pitch is the fastball. Every other pitch comes off the fastball. We aren’t keeping Mike from throwing breaking balls because of his arm. But we want him to throw 70 to 80 percent fastballs. We want him to command the fastball on both sides of the plate.”
Matuella and Jaimes agree that the plan is for Matuella to remain a starter and probably spend the season at Hickory. That’s fine with Matuella, who says that Hickory’s proximity to Great Falls makes it possible for his parents to see some of his starts. Instructional League looms in the fall but probably not games.
But that could change.
What hasn’t changed are Matuella’s confidence and his determination to keep climbing the professional ladder.
“You have to put this stuff behind you. It’s the nature of the game. It’s the risk that comes with pitching. But my arm feels great and I’m looking ahead.”