Duke's Mike Matuella: Top Of The Hill

  • Name: Mike Matuella
  • Age: 20
  • Organization: Duke Blue Devils

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(Photo: Courtesy Duke Photography.)

Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.

Two years ago, Marcus Stroman became the highest-ever drafted player in Duke history. He went 22nd to Toronto. In a few short months, it’s probable that Mike Matuella could lay the trump card atop Stroman, raising the bar of Duke baseball to heights unseen.

This spring, the Triangle may experience the rarest of baseball’s rarities. Two straight years of producing the #1 pick in the draft. NC State’s polished, heavy-throwing lefty Carlos Rodon was the top gem in 2014, snagged by the Chicago White Sox for over $6m.

Meet Duke’s late-blooming, anvil throwing right-hander Mike Matuella, who could hear his name called first in June. With it would come the spoils of lifetime financial security, along with scrutiny and unassailable expectations of the baseball world.

“Matuella has the physicality and frontline stuff to be the first pick in the 2015 draft,” Baseball America editor John Manuel said.

“He has had short stints of domination as well, and (Duke head coach) Chris Pollard and his staff are well-regarded for developing pitchers both at Duke and Appalachian State.”

Thanks to a dismal 64-98 campaign that led to manager Kirk Gibson’s firing, the Arizona Diamondbacks will be up first on the mic, with a chance to start the transformation process of the organization.

Matuella may be their man.

The Beginning

As a sophomore at Georgetown Prep in Maryland, Matuella was throwing just 84mph. A fair velocity for that age, but five years out, no one could have projected Matuella throwing in the upper 90s and injecting himself into the conversation of being the 1-1 in the 2015 First Year Player Draft.

So how did it happen?

A conversation with his high school coach sharpened his wayward focus.

“In my sophomore year, I talked with coach who told me how I could compete with seniors. Once I realized that I had potential, then I started dedicating myself.”

That realization led to a future mantra, learned at Duke, one which Matuella incorporates on a daily basis.

“Get the most out of the motion with the least effort.”

As recently as a year ago, disappointment has led to introspection, and ultimately some behavioral changes that Matuella believes are integrally responsible for his rapid rise in his pitching and draft stock.

“I changed my lifestyle,” Matuella said of his approach leading to his sophomore season at Duke. “I changed my sleeping habits, my eating habits and my work ethic. I’m monitoring everything going in to my body. I’m lifting my butt off. My sophomore fall, my velocity jumped. My control was there, everything felt good. I was stronger.”

Was he ever. From 84mph upwards of 98 - with command - in just five years.

He adopted a new mental principle which allows him to pitch from a more confident place.

“Keep an aggressive mentality - not thinking about your motion. Determine how I’m going to be aggressive hitting my spot.

Telling yourself that you’re going to throw a strike with this pitch.“

That’s been Matuella’s motto since he stepped on Duke’s campus, which was shockingly one of two Division I campuses to offer his a Division I scholarship.

The other? Maryland.

Color the Blue Devils fortunate. But color them in Royal Blue, PMS 287 to be precise.

Not A Rocket Launch

For Duke’s prized 6’7” right-hander, his ascent to the top of next June’s draft class hasn’t exactly been lightning in a bottle. A methodical and intentional approach has transformed him in mind, spirit and body. And stuff. Filthy stuff which, combined with his strong mental make-up, is making his phone ring. He’s passing those messages to his parents.

Harboring two-sport interest in high school, Matuella came to the realization after his freshman year that he would have to strike-through the second sport in order to excel in one.

“I quit basketball,” Matuella said. “If I had a future in sports, it would be in baseball. So I dedicated all my time to it. I worked with my pitching coach pretty closely, amped up my workout routine.

“I just wanted to go play Division I baseball.”

Matuella’s junior season was his tipping point, rife with challenges, successes and adversity. The pressures of possible scholarships weighed on Matuella.

“I needed to do well to get these (college) offers. I felt I was very methodical on mound, thinking a lot about my arm motion, trying to think of all ingredients of mechanics.”

Both Duke and Maryland had offered Matuella after the winter of his junior season thanks to a solid appearance at a winter indoor camp where college coaches descended to mine for recruits.

“I was throwing the hardest I ever had in my life, and throwing strikes,” Matuella said.

But when the lights went on when the season began, Matuella scuffled – and learned.

“My junior year was one of the most impactful years I’ve had,” Matuella said. “I really struggled. I was having a real tough time throwing strikes again. Part was me feeling the pressure.”

Some outings were better than others, but his candidness helped as he peeled back the stains of a few rocky outings.

“I had a couple of pretty good outings, but it was tough telling coaches at Duke how I did.”

Finally, Matuella was able to relive himself of a level of stress when he committed to play for the Blue Devils during that junior season.

“The offer was on the table for 2 to 3 months, and I really liked Duke. It was a great fit for me.”

While his senior season was better, Matuella continued to harness all facets from the game to class to his future.

“I had a pretty good chance to improve on my game, and it was very exciting to commit, but it was very frustrating to commit, and then not do very well. Pile on with the schoolwork, it was a tough preparation for my future.”

Arriving At Duke

“When I got to Duke, things started to turn around,” Matuella said. “I started working with the pitching coach (Andrew See) and Coach Pollard to transform my mentality.”

During his freshman season, he went 4-4 with a 4.53 over 22 games and seven starts, including two in the ACC against NC State and Virginia. After reaching 88mph as a high school senior, Matuella had pushed to 90-92 as a starter and touched 95 as a reliever during his debut year with the Devils.

“I started as a reliever, moved to a midweek starter, then had those two starts in the ACC. Combine that with the weightlifting during my freshman winter and spring, I learned from that experience and improved.”

The ultra-tough Cape Cod League, featuring the elite of college baseball players, was Matuella’s next hurdle.

“I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the talent, since I had already played in the ACC, but I was a little more erratic, more amped up, and the ball got elevated. I was pretty upset with myself.”

“Last season (sophomore year at Duke) was pretty good for me (2.78 ERA/11 starts), but I could’ve done a lot better,” Matuella recalled. “It was a disappointing end. We were so close. It was a really fun year, and the hardest season I had to say goodbye to all of the guys. We all saw as hard as everyone had to work to turn the program around. It was a ton of fun.”

Matuella’s Youth

Matuella was born outside of Philadelphia, which explains his fanaticism for the Phillies, and more specifically Roy Halladay. He’s hoping someday to emulate his favorite.

“I’ve loved baseball as long as I can remember.”

It began like it does for many young boys, playing catch in the backyard with Lewis, his father, at the ripe age of four.

At the age of 10, Matuella started taking pitching lessons with coaches in the area.

“My parents always pushed me, whether it was school, baseball or basketball,” Matuella said. “They don’t always tell me what I want to hear. They’re going to be honest with me.

“My parents would say that I said it years ago back in high school,” Matuella said reflecting on the first time he harbored his major league dream. “I really don’t remember that.”

Even now, the Phillies colors still coarse through his veins, despite Duke’s campus making things a bit complicated to find the games.

“We’d watch all their games growing up,” Matuella said. “But at Duke, there’s no cable in the dorms, so I can’t watch. Now I just root for certain players. Halladay is absolutely the guy I follow. Learning about his work ethic and reading about his personal life and how he had a ton of success, then he dropped from MLB to A-Ball. Watching him get back to the top of pitching, that’s been fun to see how he put everything back together.”

The June Projection

As with any player, projecting forward based on the past is never an exact science.

“Matuella’s back issues and short track record (no summer ball the last two years) make his profile unique for being drafted that highly,” Manuel said.

This past summer, Matuella was diagnosed with spondylolysis, which is a manageable condition impacting the vertebrae in the back. After adjusting his rehab stemming from a lat strain, Matuella is expected to be back at full strength.

“Compare his track record to that of Rodon," Manuel continued. "At a similar stage, Carlos was the better prospect. And yet, we are a long way from the draft. One strong, healthy, productive junior season could put Matuella atop a very fluid 2015 draft class.”

Fortunately, the drive is short for Matuella’s family, who attend virtually every game Duke plays, whether he’s pitching or not.

That devotion will certainly continue as Matuella closes in on what could be a life-altering junior season.

However, Matuella continues his approach in a business-like manner instead of reaching out to those who have experienced the exhilaration or disappointment of the draft, and all that comes with it.

“I really haven’t talked to any other players, but I have had lots of conversations with Coach Pollard. Last year, there were points where it got distracting. I was getting calls, texts and people reaching out through social media. It was really the first time that I’ve received that much attention. It was really overwhelming.”

Now as a major life-shift bobs like a buoy in the ocean, Matuella again leans on his parents for assistance, guidance and grounding.

“They’ve been really helpful, especially talking to them the last year when the advisors started calling. Anything I got, my parents got. They’ve handled everything.”

Outside the game, Matuella, 20, originally planned on spending his academic career in the world of formulas and metrics as a Math major, but one multi-variable class altered his stance. Now an Economics major, he has his hands full with class loads, workouts and sharpening his mechanics ahead of his critical junior season that begins in February.

Matuella is more than fine delegating correspondence and passing voice mails to his folks. He has plenty on which to focus.

“This is really what I want to do for my life. You can’t live by success and you can’t live by failure.”

“Baseball became fun for me again when I got to Duke.



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