Jon Matlack was drafted with the fourth pick in the first round by the Mets of the 1967 draft, out of Westchester Pennsylvania. Matlack’s minor league career was mediocre. In 1970 at Tidewater, he was 12-11 with a 4.13 ERA. In 1971, he was 11-1 with a 3.97 ERA.
Matlack made his major league debut on July 11, 1971 against the Reds. He pitched 7 innings and gave up two runs with one strikeout and no walks. He spent most of the year in Tidewater, while pitching 37 innings for the Mets.
In 1972, he took Nolan Ryan’s spot in the rotation behind Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman after the disastrous trade of Ryan to the Angels in December of 1971. Matlack had an outstanding rookie season. He went 15-10 with a 2.32 ERA. He was fourth in the league in ERA behind Steve Carlton, Gary Nolan and Don Sutton. He easily won rookie of the year by outdistancing Dave Rader of the Giants.
As a lefthander, he had a delivery similar to Koosman, but different. Koosman kicked his left leg up and brought the lower part of his leg parallel to the ground in his windup before he delivered the ball. Matlack brought his leg to almost the same position as Koosman, but it was a smooth delivery.
It was a special year in 1973. The Mets had excellent pitching, but were a weak hitting team. On May 8th, Matlack was cruising with a 3-1 lead against the Braves in the 7th inning. With the bases loaded with two outs and a 3-2 count on Marty Perez, Matlack threw a fastball. Perez hit a wicked line drive right back at Matlack’s head. The ball bounced off of his head and rolled to the dugout. He looked like he was dead. The ball hit him right over the left eye. It started to rain and the trainer came out and pulled a tarp over him. He sustained a fractured skull. Herb Score, who was a promising young pitcher sustained a similar injury that ruined his career. What was amazing is that he did not go on the disabled list and only missed two starts.
That year was similar to the 2016 season. The Mets had were besieged with numerous injuries, but hung on to win the division and make the playoffs with a 82-79 record, a game and a half ahead of the Cardinals. Matlack was 14-16, but had a 3.20 ERA with three shutouts.
In the league championship series, the Mets faced the Cincinnati Reds, who were a superior team who won 99 games. In game one, in a classic pitching duel, Jack Billingham outdueled Tom Seaver 2-1.
In game two, Jon Matlack faced Don Gullett in a classic left handed pitching duel. Matlack pitched a superb game with a two hit shutout against the vaunted Big Red Machine. The Mets won 5-0. The Mets went on to win the series to move on to face the Oakland A’s who won the World Series the year before and were heavily favored to beat the Mets.
In game one of the World Series in Oakland, Ken Holtzman outdueled Matlack by a score of 2-1. In the third inning, the A’s scored two runs, one of which was when a routine ground ball bounced between the legs of Felix Millan.
Matlack started game four. He pitched another outstanding game and won by pitching eight innings of five hit ball. The Mets won 6-1.
In the series so far, Matlack had pitched brilliantly. With the series tied three games apiece, on October 21st, game seven was played at the Oakland Coliseum. Matlack was facing off against Ken Holtzman. The A’s scored four runs in the third inning with home runs by light hitting Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson. That was all that the A’s had needed and won the game 5-2 and the series four games to three.
Matlack went on to pitch four more years with the Mets. He led the league in shutouts in 1974 with seven and again in 1976 with six. After an off year in 1976, he was traded to the Rangers in a complicated four team trade. John Milner was part of the deal and went to the Pirates and the Mets received Willie Montanez and Ken Henderson.
Matlack went on to pitch six seasons for the Rangers before retiring after the 1983 season. He ended up with a 125-126 career record with a 3.18 ERA. Matlack pitched for teams that did not score a lot of runs as evidenced by his career record. He was an excellent starting pitcher with a stellar career ERA.
In one of the most exciting moments of my childhood, at the age of 12, after writing a letter to Jon Matlack, I received an autographed photo of him in the summer of 1974.