Mathis brings QB skills to receiver job
Country boy with take-charge attitude will catch Game 5
ANAHEIM -- With nothing more than their season hanging in the balance, the Angels can count on a fully charged battery for Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday night at Angel Stadium.
Starter John Lackey and catcher Jeff Mathis, having forged a close bond, share take-charge traits they'll carry into action against the surging Alex Rodriguez and his Yankees in a true must-win confrontation.
"We're a couple of ol' quarterbacks," Mathis said, grinning. "I think there's something to be said for that. It brings out leadership skills. We've got a bunch of old quarterbacks in our clubhouse -- Torii [Hunter], Lackey, [Scott] Kazmir, myself.
"I think that background as a QB helps me behind the plate in terms of managing a game, and I also think it helps John. It's that feeling you get coming up to the line of scrimmage."
Mathis' all-time favorite athlete is Brett Favre. He'll take No. 4 on his fantasy team when Favre is 44, if the Vikings' graybeard is still wearing a uniform.
Lackey, who hopes to revive the chemistry the two shared when he shut out Boston for 7 1/3 innings in Game 1 of the AL Division Series, liberally credits Mathis with helping guide him to some impressive performances late in the season.
"We started working really well together," Lackey said. "We were on the same page. Nothing against Nap [Mike Napoli] -- he's good back there, too. But things just kind of fell into place when Jeff started working with me."
Mathis also handled Lackey in Game 1 of the ALCS when the big man from Abilene, Texas, unhinged somewhat by defensive breakdowns, lasted 5 2/3 innings in a 4-1 loss to CC Sabathia.
"John's intense out there," Mathis said. "He's a bulldog. We all know what he's like."
Quarterbacks are controlling by nature. It comes with the turf. They run the show. Everything starts with them. The same holds true of pitchers and catchers, who control a game with their skills and intelligence.
Mathis, Lackey readily concedes, was the superior high school quarterback. A country boy from Marianna, Fla., Mathis was good enough to attract a full ride from Florida State University but chose the baseball life instead when the Angels took him in the first round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft.
Mathis keeps a miniature Florida State helmet in his locker as a memento of his attachment to Bobby Bowden's storied program.
At 26, fully evolved as a receiver, Mathis is waiting for his offensive skills to catch up with his superior defense.
"Jeff's been as good behind the plate as anybody in our league this year," manager Mike Scioscia, a master of the craft, said late in the season.
For Scioscia, nothing compares to the impact a high-quality battery brings into a game.
"The pitcher-catcher relationship," he said, "is the most important aspect of the game."
Mathis agrees wholeheartedly, but he also recognizes that he needs to elevate his offensive game to become a fully respected Major League player.
The other half of the Angels' catching tandem, Napoli, has been the offensive force.
Mathis -- "the total package defensively, a model to study," in the view of third catcher Bobby Wilson -- has never acquired much respect with the bat.
At least that was the case until Game 3 of the ALCS when the baseball world was introduced to a Mathis it did not know.
His second double in two innings to the left-center gap in the 11th brought Howard Kendrick racing home with the winning run at Angel Stadium.
A .200 career hitter who batted .211 this season, Mathis has three doubles among four hits in nine ALCS at-bats.
The walk-off shot was the kind of moment Mathis had entertained during long workouts last winter in his barn -- that's right, in his barn.
"You'd be taking your hacks and thinking about winning a big game, a playoff game," Mathis said. "That's what I did all winter."
While he shares wholeheartedly Scioscia's view that defense is first and foremost for any catcher, Mathis also realizes that he needs to elevate his game offensively to be taken seriously as a total player.
To that end, Mathis had a batting cage installed in his barn back home in Marianna.
"It's a real nice barn," Napoli said. "State of the art, as barns go."
Napoli, a city boy from South Florida, came to visit Mathis and found a barn fully equipped with flat-screen TVs and all the modern conveniences, along with a weight room and batting cage.
Mathis and Napoli did some hunting and hung out. Then it was back to work for Mathis, who diligently worked on his stroke with his older brother, Jake, in late December and didn't stop until February when he headed to Arizona to intensify his work with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.
Jake, a former first baseman in the Angels' farm system, keeps close tabs on his kid brother.
"He loves the game and watches it all the time," Jeff Mathis said. "He's my older brother and looks out for me. He'll call me every night [during the season] and we'll talk. He'll say, `You're pulling out, stay back,' things like that. He was a left-handed hitter, a pretty fair hitter.
"We don't go over much film, but we spend a lot of time working on my swing. It's really convenient having a batting cage and weight room next to your living quarters. Any time you're thinking of something to do, you can walk in the next room and get some work done."
The barn was constructed during the 2008 season by Jake Mathis' father-in-law and three associates.
"You drive up, and it's a barn," Jeff Mathis said. "You go inside, and it's a home with a workout area and a batting cage. They did a really good job on it."
Mathis, a .277 hitter in the Minor Leagues, can drive the ball. Those two shots to the gap in Game 3 came as no surprise to Napoli, whose power to all fields is enormous.
"Jeff can hit," Napoli said. "I've seen him in the Minor Leagues. He just needs to stay consistent with his approach and stay confident."
Mathis has 20 homers and 99 RBIs in 749 career at-bats, highly respectable power numbers for a catcher.
He has shown the ability to raise his concentration level in pressure situations. Mathis hit .278 in 2008 with runners in scoring position, slipping this season to .238.
"He's an athlete," Hunter said. "Any guy who gets recruited by Florida State, you know he's an athlete. Guys like that respond to pressure."
By using the whole field and not getting too pull-happy, Mathis could be an adequate offensive player hitting .240 to .250
"I'm not trying to hit 30 homers and hit .330," Mathis said. "I just want to get in there and contribute, just like Nap. You want to be in there every day. When my number is called, I'm just happy to play."
His number -- 5 -- will be called by Scioscia in Game 5. Another gapper or two while he's calling signals for Lackey would be appreciated by the other ol' QB, the long, tall Texan.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.