PORTLAND, Maine — Approximately 24 hours before the Red Sox announced his promotion to Triple A Worcester, Bryan Mata stood on the warning track outside the home clubhouse at Hadlock Field, assessing his dominant stretch with Double A Portland.
After missing two seasons — 2020 because of the pandemic and 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery — Mata remains a promising prospect thanks to a bounce-back 2022.
“I expect to not end the year here,” Mata said through interpreter Oddanier Mosqueda, a fellow Venezuelan Sea Dogs pitcher.
While it’s unclear whether the 23-year-old Mata already had the news when he foreshadowed his Monday promotion, there’s no doubt that Baseball America’s No. 8 Red Sox prospect is again showing why he was once on the fast track to the big leagues.
Cracking jokes with his coaches before a round of catch. Kicking a soccer ball around, toppling water bottles set up like bowling pins. Blaring Bad Bunny and Mickey Woods from the home clubhouse speaker before a start. Mata always seems to be having a good time.
“I’m happy to be back,” Mata said. “I’m happy that I’m healthy, and so thankful.”
Mata boasts a five-pitch arsenal: A four-seam fastball that tops out at more than 100 miles per hour, a high-90s sinker, a slider, curveball, and changeup. Mata pitched 3 innings in his Triple A debut Tuesday against Buffalo, allowing two hits and one earned run while walking four and striking out one. He threw 40 of 72 pitches for strikes.
Across four levels this year, Mata has a 2.15 ERA in 15 appearances (14 starts) and 76 strikeouts in 62⅔ innings, displaying why he is considered to have a high ceiling.
“That last few weeks at the alternative site [in 2020], we really saw everything click, all the puzzle pieces starting to fit together,” said Red Sox minor league pitching coordinator Shawn Haviland. “I think he’s back to that, and you can make the argument that he’s in a better spot now than before the injury.”
Signed as an international free agent in January 2016 for a modest $25,000 bonus out of his native Maracay, Mata quickly rose through the ranks. The youngest player in the South Atlantic League in 2017 with Greenville, Mata carried the same status as the youngest player with Salem in the Carolina League in 2018 and 2019. He reached Double A in the second half of 2019, just after his 20th birthday.
But Mata’s promise could not supersede the hurdles of the last two years. He did not appear in any games in 2020, as the entire minor league season was canceled. He did participate at the alternate training site in Pawtucket that year, and was added to the Red Sox’ 40-man roster after the season.
While throwing live batting practice during 2021 spring training, Mata felt a pop, “like something was breaking,” he said.
He had torn his ulnar collateral ligament, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2021. He rehabbed at the Red Sox complex in Fort Myers, Fla., all of last season and at the start of this one.
“There were a lot of things going through my mind,” he said, “but I just had to focus.”
And that he did, clearing each medical step without delay. Mata returned to game action in mid-May, reaching 100 miles per hour in an extended spring training game. He followed with two hitless innings in his first minor league game in nearly three years with Salem before a three-start stint in High A Greenville and a promotion to Portland.
With the Sea Dogs, Mata was 5-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 10 appearances (nine starts), striking out 58 in 48⅔ innings.
“He’s pretty much the same guy, but it’s just taken a little bit of time for him to get over the hurdle mentally that he’s physically OK,” said Sea Dogs pitching coach Lance Carter, who also coached Mata in Salem. “He’s always had the confidence to go out and compete, and he’s just starting now to get where he was pre-Tommy John.”
Carter, who played parts of six MLB seasons, twice came back from the surgery. When Mata appeared a bit tentative upon arrival in Portland, Carter reassured him about his health.
Mata ended his Double A stint with a three-start stretch in which he didn’t allow an earned run across 18 innings.
“He’s been doing a really good job of keeping a clear mind,” said Sea Dogs catcher Elih Marrero. “With his competitive nature, no matter what happens, he’s going to go up there and pitch. That’s his mound when he’s up there.”
Sixteen months removed from Tommy John surgery, the only pop Mata experiences is the sound of his triple-digit fastball pounding the catcher’s mitt.
“I just want to keep going,” he said. “I want to have the opportunity to show my stuff, playing the best baseball in the world.”