Rising star Matzek ready for altitude test

April 10, 2014 Updated: April 10, 2014 at 10:55 pm
photo - Colorado Rockies pitcher Tyler Matzek throws during spring training baseball practice Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, in Scottsdale, Ariz.  (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Colorado Rockies pitcher Tyler Matzek throws during spring training baseball practice Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) 

Tyler Matzek was welcomed into the Colorado Rockies organization nearly five years ago.

On Friday, he'll finally be introduced to baseball at altitude.

The 2009 first-round pick and one-time top-25 prospect will make his home debut with the Sky Sox as he is scheduled to start the home opener against Round Rock. If Matzek is going to thrive for the Mile High club, he must first deal with the thinnest air in the minor leagues.

"You've got to learn how to deal with it one way or another, so the sooner the better," said Matzek, who dominated in his Triple-A debut last week at New Orleans, striking out 11 in five two-hit innings. "I think we're even higher than Denver. So it's probably going to fly a little bit more. If you get used to it, it's just going to make that transition even smoother."

As the highest professional ballpark in the United States at 6,531 feet above sea level, Security Service Field can bring deflating results to prospects. Even after utilizing a humidor last year, Sky Sox pitchers gave up the most runs in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.

"I've talked to some of the pitchers who have pitched here and they've said it's going to mess with your curveball a little bit," Matzek said. "Off-speed is not going to be quite as sharp. Having guys who have pitched at altitude before is really helpful. They all say you just have to locate down in the zone."

Matzek will continue to have ample resources at his disposal.

Catcher Michael McKenry came up through the organization with a reputation as a top defensive catcher before playing the past three seasons for Pittsburgh.

Gaining that outside perspective has helped McKenry to understand that the best way to combat altitude is sometimes to ignore it. He saw Pirates pitchers Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett lit up for 16 runs in consecutive games at Coors Field last season and knew it was because they were tentative.

"Guys that got hit thought about it," said McKenry, who returned to the Colorado system this offseason following his release. "Guys that didn't never did. You have to have that free mind.

"There are some things here that go to your advantage," McKenry added. "Sliders are better - they catch. The ball, I almost feel like it jumps out of your hand a little bit better because of the altitude. No one ever talks about that."

Sky Sox pitching coach Dave Schuler said the biggest thing pitchers need to understand when throwing in the mountains is how to keep moisture on their hands.

"That's most of the problem," Schuler said. "They'll grab a baseball for the first time and go, 'Man, this is slick.' It almost feels like a piece of artificial fruit in your hand. If you can't grip the ball like you normally can, then you're not going to get the same backspin on a ball that you normally do."

The one place Matzek might not want to seek advice is in the manager's office, as Glenallen Hill believes players who are distracted by their environment will not be successful for long.

"Are players thinking about it?" Hill asked. "They might be. If they mention it to me then they'll probably get a taste of reality."

Matzek has issues beyond throwing in an offensive-happy park (and league). He has posted a career 4.35 ERA in the minors as his control (331 walks in 476 innings) has been a constant concern. His strikeout rates, however, have remained solid (8.7 Ks per 9 innings in his career) and hitters have batted .229 against him.

He's no-longer the hyped prospect the Rockies took with the 11th pick out of Mission Viejo High School in California, but he's just 23, he's progressed one level in each of his past four seasons and now he's on the doorstep. As a lefty with a high-90s fastball, a plus curveball and with those control issues trending in the proper direction, there's optimism he can turn into an elite weapon in the major league rotation.

How long this last step takes will depend largely on how he responds to the conditions, and Friday will be his first go at it.

"I'm really interested to see how the ball flies, how the stuff moves curve-ball wise and we'll see," Matzek said. "We'll see how it goes. I haven't experienced any of it yet. But it's great being in the big-league club's backyard. You're getting closer to what you've been trying to do your whole life."

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