By: Brian Frank
A dream was realized for Bisons closer Matt Gage this season when he took the mound at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City for his major-league debut in early June.
“We were coming back from Rochester and me and my wife just checked into the hotel,” Gage recently told The Herd Chronicles about the moment he found out he’d be joining the Blue Jays on their road trip. “I got a call from Casey Candaele. He said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know you’re going to meet the team in Kansas City. You’ve really earned it, you’ve done everything right,’ – just kind of said everything that a manager could. I said ‘I appreciate it Casey, when is this happening?’ He was like ‘You might want to come to the field now and get your stuff.’”
“We started scrambling. We were about to do laundry so we had clothes everywhere. We packed all our clothes up and all of a sudden Shaw (Michael Shaw, Blue Jays Director of Team Travel and Clubhouse Operations) called us from the big leagues and said, ‘You’ve got two hours.’ Because they were driving down to Buffalo and I was meeting them here. So we came over here (to the stadium) and packed up all my stuff. I went over to the airport, flew out – that first experience on the team flight was amazing. First class seats everywhere.”
Gage was unsure if he was going to be activated or was just traveling to Kansas City to be part of the team’s taxi squad. However, after he arrived at Kaufmann Stadium the next day, he was summoned to manager Charlie Montoyo’s office and told he’d be activated for that evening’s game.
Despite how quickly the whole situation transpired, Gage was able to have his family on hand for his big night.
“I had seven people in the stands – my mom and dad, my brother and his wife, my wife, her dad, and my agent,” he said. “Everyone kind of said they were going to go whether I was activated or not. Luckily enough I threw that very first night.”
After a lengthy weather delay of over two hours, the first game of a three-game series finally got underway. The Blue Jays took a commanding 8-0 lead into the ninth inning when the twenty-nine-year-old Gage took the mound in the big leagues for the first time.
“Honestly, once you get out there and once the lights were on, it’s just a bigger stadium, it’s better hitters, but it’s still the same game,” he said. “It’s still 60 feet 6 inches. It was just kind of go out there, attack, throw as many strikes as I could, and get outs as fast as I can – that’s been my mentality this year. Busch (Blue Jays director of pitching development and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann) and Pete (pitching coach Pete Walker) both told me just keep doing what you’ve been doing. So that was the goal – just go out there and throw strikes.”
Gage certainly impressed. He got the first batter he faced, current Blue Jay Whit Merrifield, to ground out and followed that up with back-to-back strikeouts of Kyle Isbel and Bobby Witt Jr. to finish the ballgame.
It was a long road from Broadalbin, New York, where Gage grew up to his big-league debut at Kaufmann Stadium. After graduating from Broadalbin-Perth High School, the lefty attended Siena College in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference where he orchestrated some memorable moments.
“It has to be when we won the championship in ’14,” he said when asked his biggest highlight at the college level. “I was putting together an okay year – there were scouts everywhere. Then we went to the conference tournament and I threw ten innings versus Fairfield in the first round, but we ended up losing in the twelfth. It was kind of one of those things, I went out and did my best, did everything I could do, I put on a good showing for the draft. I was like – all right, I ended on a high note. Then all of a sudden, we win game two. We win game three. Then we win the championship against Canisius. We swept them in the championship. I was like – alright, I’m going to get to pitch again.”
Siena ended up going to the Fort Worth, Texas Regionals in the NCAA tournament along with TCU, Sam Houston, and Dallas Baptist – making Siena the only non-Texas team involved. The Saints faced Big 12 champion TCU, the twentieth ranked team in the country, in their first game with Gage on the mound.
“I threw really well,” Gage said. “I went out versus Brandon Finnegan, who made it to the big leagues that same year. He went seven and two-thirds and I went nine. I left in a 1-1 ballgame, but we ended up losing in the eleventh. But that was by far one of my best memories of being able to celebrate with my teammates, be around my teammates, and going through the draft process all within a season. It was just a blast. I still have contacts from Siena that have reached out to me – especially when I made my debut. Everyone’s proud of me that I stuck with it, even Coach (Tony) Rossi reached out to me and said I deserved it. It was a lot of fun.”
Gage has a 1.91 ERA and 12 saves for the Bisons this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Gage was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the tenth round of the 2014 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft.
“I believed it,” he said of his expectation he’d be selected heading into the draft, “but you never know, just because you’re at a small D1 in Upstate New York. You know, you’re not at Vanderbilt where it’s almost a guaranty. I think I had a good amount of teams interested in me. I just didn’t know where I was going to land – whether it was going to be in the first five rounds, five to ten, in the teens. Back in ’14 we had up to forty rounds. So, I didn’t know where my name was going to land. I was just hoping to get the opportunity and lucky enough, the Giants took me in the tenth round.”
After playing in the Giants and Mets minor-league systems, Gage signed to play in Mexico in 2019.
“I absolutely loved Mexico,” he remembered. “At that point, I didn’t know if my career in the states was going to be over or not, and if it was, then it was a stepping stone to try to get to Asia – to get to a different spot in my career and see where it goes."
"The reason I loved it the most was it was the first time in my life where I saw what it is like to try to win every single day. You show up to the ballpark and you win that day. The manager didn’t care if you threw 95 or 85, if you were hitting a buck twenty or hitting .330 – if he thought you were the guy in that spot, they were playing you. It was the first time I got to see that because going through the minor leagues, especially at the lower levels, it’s all about development. You’ve got guys in a two-run game and the organization looks at you as a high leverage guy and they want you to get used to that, but maybe they don’t have the great numbers, but they go in anyway and it’s not the greatest of innings. But down there it’s like – we’re winning today. If we have to run through six pitchers in an inning to get three outs, that’s what we’re doing. That’s where I first saw what it was like to be in the big leagues. It’s win every single game, and that’s why I loved it. Going to winter ball, it was the same way. Winter ball is a shorter season so it’s even more important to win every single day. That’s what makes it the best to me is just winning every single day.”
A pivotal moment in his career took place in 2020 when he started mimicking White Sox starter Lucas Giolito’s short-arm delivery. The results of his new delivery were instantaneous.
“I always want to get better, that’s the whole goal of playing this game,” he explained. “If it’s not coming back to the states, it’s going to Asia. How do I get to Asia faster? Coming up throwing against Giolito, he was throwing 96 to 98 but he was just all over the place. I saw that all of a sudden he was shortening up his delivery and I was like – I need to try that. This dude went through the 2019 season and dominated, then he was throwing in 2020 in spring training – and he was dominant. His changeup was really good. His fastball went down one to two miles per hour, but if you have that changeup and you’re able to locate in the zone, that one to two miles per hour doesn’t mean that much. So I was like, I’ve got to try it. It was the new wave.”
“I just stepped on the mound, I had my wife in the batter’s box, I had a catcher catching me, and I would just alternate – short-arm, long-arm, short-arm, long-arm. Every single time I threw short-arm my wife and the catcher both said they were by far better. I ended going to Sugar Land because of COVID and first pitch – 94 miles per hour. I never threw 94 in my life. The highest I think I ever got up to was maybe 93 one time – maybe. It was just one of those things that clicked.”
He saw instant improvements with all his pitches due to the change in his mechanics.
“Everything went through the roof,” he exclaimed. “My cutter has been one of my best pitches my entire career and it was 83-85 when I was a starter. With the short-arm it ticked all the way up to 92 miles per hour. My cutter was really like a slider, not really a true cutter. Now it was moving like a slider and it’s 92.”
Not a welcome sight for International League batters. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
He originally learned how to throw his cutter from Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith when Smith was a roving pitching instructor for the Giants.
“He taught me that in 2014 in instructs after I got drafted,” Gage said. “He was like, ‘Here young man,’ he picked up a baseball and put it in his right hand. His hands are huge – the baseball looks like a golf ball to him. He said, ‘Take it, have the horseshoe here, throw it like this, throw it like a fastball and it will spin for you. That was my bread and butter. Try it.’ I said, ‘okay.’ I mean Lee – one of the best closers of all-time. It worked for him and so I was like – I might as well try it and it just kind of came naturally and took off. Ever since that day, that’s how I throw my cutter. I have him to thank for it.”
In 2021, after spending two seasons pitching in Mexico and part of 2020 pitching in the Constellation Energy League in Texas, Gage returned to affiliated minor-league baseball, signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. That season, he made another big move in his career – transitioning from being a starting pitcher to coming out of the bullpen.
“I’ve just got to thank the Diamondbacks for even giving me a chance. They gave me the opportunity and sent me to Double-A just see how I progressed,” he said.
“I absolutely love being in the bullpen more than being a starter. I get to show up to the field, especially when I’m in the big leagues to potentially pitch every single day. As a starter, I didn’t like sitting for four days, sometimes five days, or six days. If you have a six-man rotation, you’re only throwing once a week. To me it just got boring. So for me to transition out there, being available every single day, even on day’s off that I have it’s just so much fun being out there because you’re more into the game. You want your guys out there to go out there every single day and do it. In here, you’re cheering for the hitters. So it’s a different mentality for sure.”
After spending most of last season pitching in the Pacific Coast League for the Reno Aces, Gage signed with the Blue Jays as a minor-league free agent last offseason. He knew Blue Jays director of pitching development Matt Buschmann from when Buschmann was the assistant director of player development in the Giants organization.
“I had a little bit of a rapport with Buschmann,” he said. “When I talked to him, the style of pitching matched up the best. He talked about throwing up in the zone, using my cutter in different situations, talked about the numbers side of things and how he could help me develop some of those things to potentially get me to the big leagues. It was just one of those things to try to develop, whereas some other organizations – they didn’t really talk the same type of pitching style that I want to throw. So that really helped the most, coming over here and having the same approach. When I got to the Diamondbacks, they were like – listen, the four-seam plays up in the zone, never throw a fastball at the bottom of the zone. The few times I threw the ball at the bottom of the zone, I got hit last year. So coming over here this year, I haven’t been trying to throw a ball at the bottom of the zone ever. Every time I’m trying to throw the fastball up. That’s helped me the most – just having that same pitching mentality. That’s one of the reasons why I came over.”
Gage recently started to embrace all of the new technologies which have taken hold throughout baseball the last few years.
“Last year was the first year I kind of understood it,” he said. “In 2018 when I got released by the Giants, Buschmann was with us in the Giants system, that’s when Rapsodo got their foot in the door. Buschmann came over to us, he was like our second in charge of the pitching coordinators, and he tried to explain it to us. You had a bunch of guys who had been through the minor leagues, been through college, and we’re looking at him like – we have no idea what you’re talking about. All of a sudden, four years later, it is the number one thing in baseball. It is unbelievable how Buschmann was ahead of his time. He saw it coming. He knew what to do with it. At the time, I had no idea, so I really didn’t listen to him, because I just didn’t know. But during that phone call last offseason, I said this is going to be a little different because I actually understand the TrackMan numbers now. Last year was the first year the Diamondbacks really showed it to me like these are your numbers, this is how the ball plays in these certain quadrants of the strike zone, so use it to your advantage.”
Coming to the Blue Jays allowed Gage the opportunity to attend his first major-league spring training camp this season at the team’s training complex in Dunedin, Florida.
“That was awesome,” he remembered. “I was actually the first guy to show up down there and Casey Lawrence was right behind me. Luckily enough we were right next to each other. Then with the lockout, no one really knew what was going on. So, we were there for mini-camp on the big league side, then minor-league camp started, so we went over to the minor-league side. We stayed in the big league locker room. Then the lockout ended, so we transitioned back over to the big league side. So being able to go through that with him, and he’s been around here, so me being on his hip following him around really helped a lot. But just being around those guys and seeing what it takes for them to be at the top of their level – especially George (Springer) – guys like that, who’ve been in the big leagues for multiple years, seeing how they go through prep, go through their work, and what they do after work – it’s amazing.”
Celebrating another save. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Gage credits much of his success this season to the way the Blue Jays organization has their catchers set up behind the plate to receive his pitches.
“The Blue Jays have taught me that they want their catchers setting up middle,” he said. “Don’t move. Take your pitch, throw it to the middle of the zone and let it work. When I was with the Giants, they kind of said the same thing when I was a starter – like hey your sinker does this, your cutter does this, throw it middle and let it move. So your still like, okay that’s fine, but the catcher is still setting up either east or west and your trying to throw it over there, so you’d still miss a little bit. I’ve really just told the catchers this year, just set up middle, I’m going to throw it right to the top of your mask, and wherever the ball goes, it goes. It’s going to be closer to the zone. My misses are going to be a lot smaller than if you set up in and I miss those three inches in. Whereas if you set up middle and I miss three inches in, it’s still a strike. That’s the biggest difference since I came over here. That’s another thing the Blue Jays taught me that’s taken my career through the roof. Because everything now is around the zone, my fastball has natural cut, my cutter’s going to cut like it usually does. If I do miss in arm-side, it’s still going to cut, I’m not getting in-in on a lefty. If I try to go in-in, I’d hit him almost every time. So that’s the biggest thing coming over here that’s made this year the best.”
Another huge part of his success that he’s quick to point out is the advantage of having an extra coach who understands his mechanics better than anyone – his wife Paige. She played college softball at Coastal Carolina, before transferring to Siena for her final three seasons.
“Here at home (Sahlen Field) it’s really easy, she sits right behind the catcher,” he said. “So if I feel something with my mechanics, whether it’s my front arm, my back leg drive, my elbow is too low, anything. I can look at her and she knows my mechanics just as well as me. Sometimes even better, because she is my catch partner during the offseason so she can see how the ball comes out. I have her stand in the box when I’m throwing my bullpens to get her perception. So she’s seeing it. She’s getting more game reps than anybody else. Now I love the coaches and I love the coaching staff but they don’t see me every single day of the offseason. She’s literally there every single day. She’s watching me. I can tell her what I’m feeling and she tells me what she’s seeing. We put our heads together and just kind of look at it. So when I’m on the mound during a game and I’m feeling something wrong, I look at her and it’s easy. At the big league level, I don’t really know where she’s sitting so I come out early and kind of scope it out to see where she is, so that if I’m in the middle of a game I can look at her section, find her and she can tell me the same thing.”
Gage is having an incredible season this year at both Triple-A and in the big leagues. He currently has a 1.91 ERA in thirty-two relief appearances for the Bisons and a 1.38 ERA in eleven games working out of the Blue Jays’ bullpen.
“Honestly, I’m just happy to be the twenty-seventh guy or the twenty-eighth guy, the guy just off the roster, the guy with the options,” he said. “I played with guys who didn’t look at it the way I’m looking at it and were always frustrated that they would go up and they just had the options so they had to come down. They took it personal. I’ve always said throughout my career – I would love to be that guy. Now that I’m that guy, I’m fine with it. Everyone wants to be in the big leagues. Everyone wants to stay there. But if you take it personal, then you come down here and struggle – that doesn’t help you to get there quicker. You have to say – it’s a business, they have a plan, they’re going with their plan. Whenever it’s your time to go back up and they choose you then you go up there and keep performing.”