Legendary? Malpractice? 156 pitches later, Stanford ace Quinn Mathews is ready for more

OMAHA, Neb. — Years ago, during lunchtime at Don Juan Avila Middle School in Southern California, Paul Coppes and another teacher played basketball with a few of the best athletes in school, including Quinn Mathews. Coppes was an avid runner in his late 30s, fit enough to eventually become an ultramarathoner. One day, when Mathews was in seventh or eighth grade, he challenged Coppes to a one-mile race.

Pride got the best of Coppes, and he accepted. Churning around the track, the special education teacher was consumed with one thought — he could not let a middle schooler beat him. Coppes ran as fast as he could, and narrowly beat the ultracompetitive kid who’d go on to become Stanford’s ace pitcher.

Coppes didn’t stop to gloat. He made a beeline for the locker room and vomited up his breakfast.

“I don’t think Quinn knows that,” Coppes said, “because I would never share that with him.”

He was not the first, nor the last, to be lured in by the audacity of Quinn Mathews.

ON MONDAY, MATHEWS, A 6-foot-5 senior left-hander, will take the mound with the hope of keeping his Stanford Cardinal alive in the Men’s College World Series. It will be his first appearance since June 11, when he threw 156 pitches in a complete-game victory over Texas in Game 2 of the Stanford Super Regional.

And what a week it has been. Mathews has been the most talked-about, and debated-over, player in baseball, his last performance called everything from legendary to career malpractice.

There are thousands of opinions on whether all of those pitches will adversely impact Mathews’ pursuit of a professional career in baseball. The answer? Nobody knows. Perhaps the bigger question for today, on the cusp of possibly his last college game, is easier: What possessed Quinn Mathews to throw 156 pitches?

Sitting in the lobby of the downtown Marriott on Friday night, hours before the Cardinal faced top-seeded Wake Forest in the MCWS opener, Mathews said he felt fine. He was ready to pitch Saturday if needed against the Demon Deacons. (He wouldn’t be called upon in a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss.)

He said his arm wasn’t sore, and the only notable difference he could feel was in legs and hips, but that it wasn’t significant. In an ESPN interview after the 156-pitch game, he laughed while saying he was good for another three outs the next day. No one is completely sure if he was joking.

Mathews has thrown at least 100 pitches in 15 games this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but Mathews doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. He said it helped him build up his arm for the super regional game.

He knows all about the things that can go wrong with a pitcher’s arm. Recently, he turned in a 30-page research paper on the internal brace, which is a surgical procedure that is an alternative to Tommy John surgery. The last book he read was Jeff Passan’s “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports,” which involved three years of Tommy John research.

Baseball is a sport deeply rooted in superstition, and all of this talk about arm injuries right after throwing so many pitches, and right before the biggest game of his college career, might come across as tempting the fates.

But Mathews doesn’t believe in jinxes.

“It’s like anything in life,” he said. “If I was afraid of an arm injury, I shouldn’t play baseball. If I’m afraid of car crashes, I shouldn’t drive a car. That’s just how I think about things. Everything’s a statistic. Obviously, you increase your stuff with speeding and throwing 156 pitches and throwing hard and throwing a ton of breaking balls and throwing a lot, all of that stuff increases. But if you’re afraid of injury, you’re always going to be afraid of something in life and it’s just unfortunately a part of the game that you can’t really run away from anymore.

“If it’s my time,” he said, “it’s my time.”

MATHEWS WAS IN sixth or seventh grade when he woke up one morning and decided he wanted to play baseball at Stanford.

“It’s the best in terms of academics, athletics,” he said. “The people, the diversity — everything that Stanford can offer you, there isn’t a school in the country that competes athletically and academically like we do.”

He told his parents of his plans to go to Stanford; they told him to be realistic and have a backup plan. He was scrawny and played on the “B” team of the Saddleback Cowboys, a traveling summer squad.

But Mathews was undeterred.

“I’m going to play baseball at Stanford,” he told his parents one night at dinner.

They told him to chase his dream.

Chris Malec, one of his Saddleback Cowboys coaches, said Mathews was brilliant and inquisitive and always asked questions about how to set up hitters. He was quirky, and when he wasn’t pitching, he talked constantly, to the point where Malec could hear him almost anywhere on the field.

Malec was watching the super regional with his son, and when the Stanford bullpen was stirring in the ninth inning, with Mathews’ pitches piling up, Malec recognized the look on the pitcher’s face. He saw it for years. He knew Mathews was going to tell Stanford pitching coach Thomas Eager that he wasn’t leaving the mound.

When Mathews was a kid, he’d tell Malec every day that he was ready to pitch.

“That’s just who Quinn is,” Malec said. “He just wants the ball in big moments. He’s fearless … super smart, and ready to go at any time.”

Mathews’ biggest influence, without hesitation, is his older sister, Remy. She played soccer at Rice, the first one in the family to earn a Division I athletic scholarship, and is currently a second-year law student at the University of San Diego.

Remy is the impetus behind his competitiveness. Ask Mathews what drives him, and he said it’s his desire to make his family, particularly Remy, proud.

“She worked her butt off on the soccer field,” he said, “worked her butt off in the classroom and just set the standard of working hard and not really complaining while going about it.”

Last August, after Mathews fell to the 19th round of the MLB draft, securing his return to Stanford, he took a trip to Yellowstone and Park City, Utah, with his family to unwind. They decided to play Scrabble, one of their favorite games.

Remy won on a three-letter word that her brother contested. She can’t remember what word it was.

“Those [games] get pretty intense,” Remy said. “He did not like [losing]. In my mind, he flipped the board.”

MATHEWS WAS SUPPOSED to walk in Stanford’s graduation ceremony Sunday with a degree in science, technology and society. His roommates were sad that he couldn’t be there, but happy about the reason he’d miss the weekend’s festivities.

While most of the baseball team lives in dorms together, Mathews, after his freshman year, decided to room with a group of academic peers. One of them, Sohit Gatiganti, co-authored the research paper on the internal brace. Gatiganti didn’t know anything about baseball when he met Mathews, but he and his friends were regulars at Klein Field at Sunken Diamond, and Gatiganti has video of Mathews’ first and last college pitch he threw at the field.

He doesn’t know how Mathews has the stamina for everything he does. He said Mathews was up until 4 a.m. one night working on the paper during regionals. And no matter how much success he has in baseball, he always goes into the stands after games and thanks his friends for coming.

Mathews even sought them out after the 156-pitch game. Gatiganti hugged him and said, “You’re f—ing crazy for doing that.”

Gatiganti said last year’s draft motivated Mathews more than it disappointed him. Now he’s Stanford’s No. 1 pitcher, and is projected to go as early as the fourth round in July. He knows what happens Monday could alter his status. But Mathews said he hasn’t thought about the draft one time this year.

“Like I told my coaches, I’m playing for this team, this group of guys,” he said. “And everything that happens after this season, I’ll worry about that then. But I just wanted us to play one more game together, get one more opportunity to practice together and maybe take one more flight together if we won that Monday game. And that was really the only thing that was going through my head was, ‘How can I help this team get to at least one more practice together?’ Because it’s a special group and I love spending time with the guys.”

One hundred and fifty-six pitches got him to Omaha, and to Mathews, it was worth it.

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