With a signing bonus of several million dollars at stake, hard-throwing left-hander Tyler Matzek of Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley is going to face lots of pressure situations over the next three months.
He already has been tested off the diamond, whether dealing with the constant scrutiny and questions from major league scouts or the tumultuous highs and lows when his father was hospitalized with throat cancer.
Keeping him focused and refreshed are his twice-a-week five-mile runs around a canyon near his home, where he and his dog, Denali, a 110-pound female American bulldog, wander through the wilderness with music from Lil Wayne blaring from Matzek's headphones
"It's peaceful," he said.
It's an escape for Matzek, who uses the time to think about anything and everything.
He's a 6-foot-3, 215-pound pitcher with a 94-mph fastball, and that makes him one of the top pro prospects in the nation.
"God has blessed him with a great arm and good body," Coach Bob Zamora said.
The word got out about Matzek's talent in January 2008 when he happened to be pitching against last season's No. 1 pitching prospect, Gerrit Cole of Orange Lutheran, in a winter league game.
"All the scouts saw Matzek strike out the side with awesome stuff," Zamora said. "He was hitting 91, 92 mph from the left side. He opened everyone's eyes."
Now, scouts tell Zamora, "He's going in the first round" of the June draft.
But all that depends on Matzek's living up to the expectations he established last summer and fall, when lots of traveling and hard work sent his stock soaring. He gained 20 pounds, added velocity and kept throwing strikes.
He went to Minnesota, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida for tournaments and showcases. He pitched on weekends for a scout team. It has put him in position to be the pitcher to watch in Southern California this spring, and if that means additional pressure, he says bring it on.
"I just like the pressure situations," he said. "If there's a pressure situation and I see someone in it, I want to be the one, and I want to succeed. That's how I am."
A year ago, he got sick, lost 15 pounds and had an up-and-down junior season, but it hardly compared to his sophomore year because the man who has coached him since T-ball, his father, Jeff, was battling cancer.
"My dad was hospitalized most of the season and didn't come to many of my games and sometimes he was on the verge of death while I'm playing baseball," Matzek said. "It was nerve-racking. You're afraid you're going to get the call he's passed away while walking off the field."
Thankfully, Matzek's father has recovered, and he's back on the sideline rooting, advising and inspiring his son.
The challenges are immense, with scouts following his every move, probing and investigating to see if he would be worthy of a sizable monetary investment. Matzek also has the college option, having signed with Oregon.
"Everybody wants to have meetings and talk," he said. "It's time consuming. It comes with the territory, but you still have to be an 18-year-old. You're gone all summer in random places. There's more stress off the field than on. Between me and my dad, there's a meeting every day."
Matzek wants to make sure the season ahead revolves around trying to help Capistrano Valley win a Southern Section Division I championship and most importantly, enjoying his final year of high school baseball.
"I just want to play baseball," he said. "Let people talk and do whatever they want. Baseball is a game. It's supposed to be fun."
On Saturday, Capistrano Valley will play Lake Forest El Toro in a morning scrimmage at El Toro that figures to bring out the radar guns en masse.
Matzek leads a talented group of Southland pitchers who throw hard and figure to have fun pitching against each other.
El Toro has 6-7 Chad Thompson, who signed with Arizona State. Simi Valley Royal has a pair of pitchers capable of throwing in the 90s, senior Bryan Berglund and junior Cody Buckel. Norco's Matt Hobgood was The Times' player of the year in 2008. Santa Monica's Tyler Skaggs is a left-hander whose breaking ball makes his powerful fastball look even quicker. Aaron Northcraft of Santa Ana Mater Dei and Beau Wright of Los Alamitos are coming off exceptional junior seasons.