Matt continued his climb through the system at West Michigan in 2006 and Erie in 2007, demonstrating that he was one of the top relief prospects in the organization.
TigsTown: Thanks for taking a few minutes to speak with me, Matt. Now, you didn't follow the prototypical path to pro ball, Matt; rather signing as an undrafted free agent. Can you walk me through what took place leading up to the draft, and right up to actually signing with the Tigers in July?
Matt Rusch: Yeah, sure. I can definitely do that. It's funny you mention it; it was kind of a roundabout thing everybody wants to talk about. It was kind of weird coming out of college, I decided I didn't want to do the college thing anymore, and just moved back home since I had a nice little job set up for me. I got to playing with a summer league team in upstate New York, in the Albany Twilight League, and I was pitching well, I didn't really think too much of it. Even during college I never thought much about the draft and becoming a professional baseball player. I really didn't think that was too much of a possibility. I knew I could throw the ball in the strike zone and stuff like that, but I never had really good command of secondary pitches or anything like that. So I was just pitching that summer league and one of my ex-baseball coaches, Bob Godlewski, got a hold of Bill Monboquette who was the pitching coach for the Oneonta Tigers for a number of years. He set up a closed little bullpen session for me when they were visiting in my home town of Albany, the Tri-City Valley Cats area there. I don't know, I guess I did well enough to impress. I definitely had the jitters going, and the adrenaline going so that probably helped out with the fastball a little bit, but it was just a dream to be out there. I got to watch the game and everything. I sat back that night and said ‘You know what; I think I could do this if they just gave me the opportunity.' I was lucky enough that I think two days later I got a call at about seven in the morning out of the blue. My Father had to wake me up and said ‘I've got a phone call here; you might want to listen to this.' It was Dan Lunetta with the Detroit Tigers. I thought it was a big joke at first, but Lunetta asked ‘How would you like to play baseball for the Detroit Tigers?' I said it would be a privilege, so after that day I sat back and talked with Coach Godlewski again and he just said to keep my head up, eyes forward, and keep my nose clean, and good things can happen. It was quite a week there for me!
TT: Being from the Albany-area then, you stared out your professional career by going down to the Gulf Coast League, and then right at the end of the year you got to make a couple of appearances with Oneonta, up closer to home. What kind of a thrill was that to pitch in and around your home town as a pro?
MR: It was great! I wasn't expecting that call either from Mr. Lunetta. He asked if I'd like to join up with Oneonta as they were heading for a playoff run. I met up with the team, and had known a few of the guys from the tryouts and I was able to get to know them a couple days before that, so I fit right in which was great. They were a great group of guys. It was a huge thrill because on of my first appearances it just so happened that we were back in Tri-City, where I had my tryout and where I'm from. I got a big thrill, and did the whole local television interviews and everything like that. I kind of got my feet wet in a quick half season there. It was like no other feeling I've had in this world before.
TT: After moving to the bullpen full time at West Michigan, you've both been very effective and moved very quickly to Triple-A. What would you classify as the secret to your success?
MR: It's not too big of a secret, really. Its just listening to your pitching coaches at all times. I've been lucky enough to have AJ Sager as my pitching coach ever since West Michigan. It seems like wherever he goes, I seem to follow. I don't know if he's doing that by design, he's probably not, but it just so happens that I've had the same pitching coach. The big secret is just keeping the ball down and letting them put it in play, and just trusting your stuff like they tell you. Every pitch that you throw, you have to throw it with conviction. You have to believe in it, and when you do that, usually good things happen. I've been lucky enough to have AJ for a long time now, and he's worked with me extensively. He's been with me through my ups and my downs. I will say, I've been pitching pretty effectively, and I've been surrounded by a great group of guys, and you learn by what your teammates do. Just as much as the pitching coach, the head coach and my teammates have helped me transition through the phases of baseball really well.
TT: For those that may not have seen you pitch regularly, what is your standard arsenal and approach on the mound? You mention keeping the ball low, is that basically what it amounts to for you, or do you try and get into a little more strategy based on what you know of the hitters.
MR: During the game, I watch the game intently. Every single game I think I've been involved with professionally; I've sat in the bullpen and watched every hitter to pick up their tendencies and stuff like that. All you have to do is watch them a couple of at-bats, and they tell you a lot. It's just a matter of going out there when you're on the mound and gathering your thoughts and walking through their previous at-bats. Like I said, every at-bat it seems like they show you something; maybe they have a hole in their swing, or maybe they're sitting on a certain pitch. I'm not giving AJ a big shout-out here, but he's worked with especially on my change-up. It's the best pitch in baseball. I've worked with it a lot the last two years, and I think I've finally got it down now. The slider you have to be able to throw for strikes. It goes for every pitch, if you can throw your whole arsenal for strikes in any count, any situation, good things are going to happen. Fortunately I've got good command of my secondary pitches, and it definitely helps out. You don't want to give into the hitter. If he's sitting on something, you want to be able to mix it up and keep him off balance. I'd have to say just going out there and staying low in the zone and trying to attack the hitters is the key. They say this all the time, but hitters can smell fear in you, so you've got to go out there know you can get them out and try to pitch to contact.
TT: You mention working on a change-up a lot with AJ, and they often talk about the change-up being the toughest pitch a young pitch – any pitcher – to learn; has it taken going through a few different variations, or a few different grips, and what have you finally settled on?
MR: Actually, it's taken me quite a while. I started with it in Oneonta and I really didn't think it was good enough to bring it into games, and throw it any situation. Along the line I've definitely changed my grip up a little bit, and now I just go with the three-finger across all the seams; just like a four-seam fastball. I've become very comfortable with that, but unfortunately it did take a lot of time for it to develop. Jon Matlack, the Pitching Coordinator for us, he actually trusted it before I did. I was a little hesitant to throw it in spring training games and stuff like that, and he just told me he wanted me to go out there and throw nothing but change-ups. He said he wanted to see fastball-change, fastball-change, and just keep going back and forth with it until it becomes comfortable. Luckily enough it's just become second nature to just throw it like a normal fastball and command it low.
TT: You've bounced from Erie to Toledo this year already, what's the biggest difference you've seen in talent level between the two stops?
MR: It's definitely a big jump. A lot of people told me that it's not too much different, but as I've gotten up here and as I'm studying the hitters, it's definitely different. All the lineups, probably half the guys have had Major League time, and they know their pitchers and what to pick up on. It seems like if you make a mistake, they make you pay for it. The big thing is the consistency, really. You make a mistake and you could get away with it in the Midwest League, and even sometimes in the Eastern League, but it seems up here that if you make a mistake, it's going to be hit hard somewhere; usually in the gap or over the fence. I just have to try to cut down on the mistakes as much as possible and be consistent in getting all my pitches over for strikes.
TT: You haven't had supposed super-prospect Jay Bruce punish any mistakes yet, have you?
MR: I've been lucky enough that I think I've gotten him out on all three occasions so far. He did hit it hard a couple of times, but lucky for me they were ‘at-me' balls.
TT: You can say you've gotten him out more than a lot of guys have; especially in the Major Leagues so far. He's been on quite a tear.
MR: It's just unbelievable! They're calling him ‘Babe' Bruce and everything like that!
TT: You appear to be settling into a bit of a groove at Toledo, has something clicked for you, or has there been something else that's led to the more consistent success?
MR: It's really just the development of a two-seam fastball. I thought I could get away with just being able to command my four-seam, working in-out, in-out, but obviously the hitters as you move up levels they are going to be able to adapt just as well as you. The two-seam fastball has definitely helped me out a lot. You get in a bad count and throw that two-seamer, and it seems a lot of times they over-swing or they were just sitting on your four-seam, and they'll roll it over a lot. As for something clicking right now, it's just a matter of going out there and just believing in yourself and throwing every pitch with conviction. From my standpoint it's really, what do I have to lose? I just go out there and try to do my best every time. Luckily things have turned out well for me. Like I said, there have been some ‘at-me' balls, but for the most part I do feel like I've settled down a lot. I do believe I can compete at this level, and at the next level. I'm just going to try to ride this wave for right now. I just have to keep working with AJ. I ask him everyday, ‘How can I get better?' It's definitely good to have some feedback, even when you're on a roll.
TT: Looking back a little bit, what have been some of your personal highlights as a professional?
MR: I definitely have to say winning the Midwest League championship with Matt Walbeck and AJ, and everybody that was there and a part of that. It was a great atmosphere to play in everyday. The fans were just unbelievable, and to finally win that championship after your first full season, that definitely sticks out in my mind. Another part would probably be clinching the Southeast Division [Eastern League] last year for Erie. Going from worst-to-first is no easy feat to accomplish, and I think we took a lot of pride in that. We could start to see the city come alive and stuff like that, so it was really cool to see the City of Erie get behind us with the run we had there. That's really it. I'd say the Triple-A debut was definitely up there too, with the adrenaline going. Those three things stick out the most, and hopefully I've got a couple more to come.
TT: Obviously AJ Sager has been a big influence on you, as has Jon Matlack, who has been the most influential person on your career, either in or out of the Tigers' organization?
MR: Along with Coach Godlewski, I'd have to say my pitching coach down at my Division II college, Mount Olive – which actually just won the Division II championship. Aaron Akin was my pitching coach there; a former pro, he was right up there highly touted with Beckett and Burnett and everybody, and unfortunately he had some arm problems. He worked with me extensively, and he's basically the one that taught me how to pitch. He taught me how to compete, and to go out there everyday and give it your best, and never cheat yourself. I'd have to say he has definitely been a big influence. The biggest influence, bar none, has definitely been my family and friends. My parents have come every place I've played so far, and they've given up a lot just to see me chase this hopefully successful dream of mine. To have the support of your family like that is huge; to be able to call them and chat with them about normal things just brings you back to the normal level there. Once you get comfortable in your own skin, then you can go out on the baseball field; that's the way I look at it. I definitely have to give most of the credit to my family.
TT: With all of my interviews, I give the player the last word. Is there anything you want to express or touch on that we may not have discussed to this point?
MR: You know, I think that basically sums it up. There's just not too much else that goes into it. I just like to have as much fun as possible. Sometimes you see the guys that take the game very, very seriously, and I'm not saying that I don't take it seriously, but sometimes you just have to walk around and enjoy the moment, enjoy where you're at, enjoy the different cities you get to go to, all that. The day you stop enjoying the game, obviously is a day you really need to sit back and think about thing. As long as you're still enjoying the game – which I am – it's just the trill of my life and I just want to see how far I can take this.
TigsTown.com would like to thank Matt for taking time out of his schedule to speak with us about his career and his fourth professional season. We wish him the best of luck throughout the rest of the 2008 season, and hope to see him in Detroit soon!