Some 50 feet from where Royals prospect Seuly Matias made his temporary home in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park on Sunday sat former Expos and Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero.
He entertained members of the media for more than 30 minutes on Sunday afternoon, hours before he and the World team lost to the United States 10-6 in the All-Star Futures game, and shared the same advice he gave the young batters invited to this showcase.
“Always keep your head up and do your job,” he said in Spanish. “Forget what people are saying. Do the job you have to do to get to the big leagues.”
Across the clubhouse, Matias sat preparing for his first Futures game appearance, in which he went 2 for 3 with a home run, and memorizing Guerrero’s words. He’d heard them at least three times during team meetings called by former Red Sox slugger and World manager David Ortiz.
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Yet Matias hung on each syllable. Ortiz and Guerrero, natives of the Dominican Republic like Matias, hit a combined 990 home runs during their careers. They know what they’re talking about, he said. He aspires to be like them.
And on Sunday, with two of the biggest names in Dominican baseball looking on, Matias put his potential on display. He electrified the World dugout in the second inning, shooting a waist-high 94 mph fastball thrown by Yankees prospect Justus Sheffield an estimated 360 feet to right field for a leadoff homer.
Strictly by numbers, Matias had little chance. Sheffield is the Yankees’ second-ranked prospect and the fifth-ranked left-handed pitcher across all levels by MLB Pipeline. He’s only allowed a .193 batting average and three home runs across 85 innings at Class AA and Class AAA.
But Matias is unbridled power and boundless energy. He is a 19-year-old prospect who gallops around the bases and does a funky side-step when he rounds third base on a homer.
The display of raw strength had Ortiz comparing Matias to a young version of Sammy Sosa on the MLB Network broadcast. It had Matias’ World teammates Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres and Yusniel Diaz of the Dodgers standing at the dugout railing, hands raised in ecstasy.
When Matias finished his trot around the bases, he was met with high fives all the way down the steps into the third base dugout — first from Ortiz and eventually from hitting coach Guerrero, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at the end of the month.
“That was huge,” Matias said. “I saw (Ortiz’s) smile and when he put both his hands up, I felt so happy. It was a great experience.”
All winter, Matias longed to be here. He had watched Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., considered the top prospect in baseball by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, go 2 for 4 in last summer’s All-Star Futures game and felt pride for his friend — and something akin to disappointment in himself.
“Vlad Jr., he came here last year and so did a few other of my friends,” said Matias, who signed with the Royals for $2.25 million during the 2015 international period. “I was like, ‘Wow, they signed in my same year and praise God they’re at the Futures game. But, God willing, next year, I’m gonna do my best and put in every effort to join them here and be part of the same thing.’”
Matias met his self-imposed challenge with relative ease. After smacking a minors-leading 17 homers in 150 at-bats over 41 games, he earned a spot at the South Atlantic League All-Star game alongside Legends teammates Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez and Sebastian Rivero. The Futures game nod came about a month after the first announcement, on the heels of a 4 for 41 skid in which Matias struck out 21 times and drew four walks from June 21 to July 4.
With 109 strikeouts in 268 at-bats this season, pitch selection is something Matias is trying to improve. That hole in his game was picked open by Reds pitcher Hunter Greene, the second overall pick of the 2017 draft. Greene struck out Matias on a high 100 mph fastball in his second at-bat Sunday.
Still, Matias found comfort in the at-bat. He worked a 2-2 count and laid off three breaking pitches, only one of which was a called strike.
As the United States improved to 13-7 all-time in the 20th installment of the Futures game, Matias drew further encouragement for a professional career that began just three summers ago.
“I think that when I go back (to the Legends), I will have my timing down,” Matias said. “I know I’ll get better. I know I can do it. I know that with God, I can do it. It’s just an adjustment.”