TORONTO — As important as every game is for the Blue Jays during their postseason chase, there's also a lot at stake for Blue Jays starter Steven Matz.
The 30-year-old has been a revelation for Toronto since being acquired in an under-the-radar offseason trade for Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and minor league pitcher John Winckowski.
The price was understandably low at the time—Matz was coming off a horrendous 2020 season where he allowed an astronomical 4.1 HR/9 in six starts—and the Blue Jays took a chance adding him to a rotation that, at the time, was relatively unproven.
Toronto's rotation has since become one of the best in the AL, and Matz is a big reason why. He's anchored the back half of the staff, and the timing of his 180-degree turnaround couldn't be any better.
"Last year, obviously it didn't go too well for me," Matz said. "I'm thankful to get an opportunity here with the Jays with such a good team. And so it's been awesome working with [pitching coach] Pete [Walker]. I definitely feel like I made a lot of strides this season and learned a lot."
It's a contract year for the left-hander, the Jays are in a playoff hunt, and, like Hyun Jin Ryu a night prior, Matz is looking to solidify a role in the postseason rotation. In Saturday's 6-2 win over the Twins, he gave his team plenty of reasons to believe in him. Just not initially.
A first-inning walk to Jorge Polanco set up yet a Josh Donaldson home run—a deep drive to right field on a sinker at the top of the zone—to give Minnesota an early two-run lead. But, like he's done all season, Matz bounced back.
He cruised to retire 16 of the next 17 batters he faced and came within one strike of finishing the sixth inning, before a walk and single knocked him out of the ballgame. Matz's afternoon was complete after pitching 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball, allowing only three hits, while walking two and striking out five.
"I had the curveball going, so I just used it a lot," Matz said. "They weren't doing any damage on it. I felt really comfortable with strike one, [then] put away with that [pitch].
"[To] Donaldson, I just made a bad pitch. Looking back to it, I could’ve done a few different things there."
The Blue Jays’ offense helped out big-time in the fourth inning. Marcus Semien ripped home run No. 40, then Teoscar Hernández cashed in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette with a towering three-run bomb, adding to his team-leading 106 RBI.
The big push from the bats allowed Toronto to avenge its loss from the previous evening, but Matz kept the team in it once again—he's now allowed two earned runs or less in eight of his last nine starts.
Matz's final line doesn't jump off the page, but the Rogers Centre faithful sure appreciated his efforts, showering him with a remarkably loud ovation as he walked off the mound.
That's the thing with Matz, he's been sneakily talented over the last little while. Only now, smack dab in a playoff race, are fans really starting to appreciate what he's been doing.
"Now that we're talking about people nobody talks about, Matz is another guy," manager Charlie Montoyo said. "He's been steady since he came back from [the COVID list]. He's been one of our best pitchers and is giving us a chance every time he goes out. And he did the same thing today."
In a rotation led by popular names like Robbie Ray, José Berríos, and Alek Manoah, Matz often gets overlooked, but he has serious October experience. He started in the 2015 World Series as a rookie with the Mets, and, based on the last two months of play, Matz has earned the right to start over Ryu in a postseason rotation.
"I always talk about [how] momentum is the next day starter," Montoyo said. “And every time he takes the mound, he's giving us momentum.
"He's been great throwing strikes with all his pitches, keeping hitters off balance. He's been one of our best starters. And that's saying a lot because the other guys are doing really good too."
There's plenty of buzz around how much money Ray gets this offseason, but if Matz continues to shine, he'll command a nice payday too. It's a bit early to speculate, but a contract in the range of a three-year, $40-million deal doesn't seem unreasonable for a guy who now boasts a 3.84 ERA.
Before anything like that happens, though, the Blue Jays have to keep winning to reach the playoffs. Matz did his part on Sunday and the offense took care of the rest to give Toronto a half-game lead over the Yankees for the second AL wild card.