Two years after shaking with nerves in his first appearance, Matt Lopes cannot wait to get back on the mound
Junior Matt Lopes is a pitcher on the Washington University baseball team. For two years, he’s been part of some of the best pitching staffs in Division III. This year, with ace pitcher Matt Ashbaugh having graduated, Lopes looks poised to play a key role in the Bears’ pitching successes. We talked to Lopes about how he became a pitcher, his highest moments on the field and what he’s excited about this season.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student Life: Take me through your story as an athlete in a broader sense. How did you get into baseball at first and how did you end up as a pitcher?
Matt Lopes: I started playing baseball when I was four years old, playing tee-ball. My dad was my coach. It was a lot of fun. You’re a little kid just running around, you don’t really understand baseball, and I just kind of stuck with it. Here I am, 17 years later and I’m fortunate enough to still be playing. As a younger kid I played a lot of different positions. I played all over the infield, I played a little bit of outfield and everybody pitched a little bit. When you need more arms, everybody throws a little bit. And then in middle school and high school I pitched a little bit more and a little bit more. But it wasn’t until I got to college that I was actually just a pitcher. Even in high school, I was a fielder most of the time and then some days I would pitch and some days I wouldn’t. But now in college, I’m just a pitcher, so it’s kind of interesting to make that transition from being a two-way guy to being just a pitcher. It’s kind of a different approach to the game, but it’s what I really enjoy.
SL: What would you say is your favorite part about being a pitcher?
ML: I guess just that you’re the one that’s in control. You always have the ball, so nothing happens until you start it. You kind of get to play mind games.
SL: You said you’re really fortunate, 17 years later, to still be able to play baseball in college. When did you realize or decide that you wanted to continue playing baseball in college?
ML: That was something that I’ve always wanted to do. As a little kid, you dream of going to college and one day playing in the big leagues. You know, I don’t think I’m going to make it to the big leagues, but I made it this far, so I’m totally okay with that.
SL: How did you end up at Wash. U.?
ML: So I actually went to a camp called Headfirst Honor Roll in November of my senior year of high school. It’s basically this camp for high school players who are looking at playing in college, and they have a bunch of schools like Wash. U. that are very good academic schools. They aren’t maybe Vanderbilt or University of Florida, in terms of top-level D1 baseball, but are still very good, very competitive programs. And we’re ranked number six in the nation right now, so we have a very good program here but it’s also a very, very good school academically and I think that’s kind of what this campus is geared towards. So I went to one of those and I met our assistant coach here, Coach [Adam] Rosen. We just kind of hit it off, we stayed in touch and went from there, and now I’m here.
SL: You talked about having such a winning program here [and] being ranked number six right now. I just wanted to point out, if my notes are right, through high school and college you have not pitched a loss. How does it feel to have such a record and to bring some of that winning culture to Wash. U. for the season?
ML: I mean, that is correct in your notes. It’s been a while since I’ve recorded a loss on the mound, but part of that is due to the fact that in high school, we had several other pitchers that were just pitchers, so I normally would pitch against the teams that were like “Okay, we don’t need your ace arm, I can just go out there and throw.” I mean we’d win because my high school had a good program. We didn’t lose a lot of games anyways, but the teams that I was pitching against were not the teams that we were worried about beating us at all. You know, I’ve been fortunate enough to pitch well enough to not have a loss on my record all through high school, which was pretty cool. I don’t know how many people can say that, but obviously there are a lot of people that pitch several more games than I do, so maybe that contributes to part of it. I’ve been mostly a relief pitcher, so as long as I don’t mess up, I don’t record a loss. Sometimes, I’m fortunate enough to sneak out a win when I come into a tie game and I pitch an inning or two and we score in one of those innings so I get credit with a win. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a couple of wins that way. I did get one win last season as a starter against MacMurray. I think that brought me up to four wins in the past two years, so I’ll take that any day.
SL: Another thing that not a lot of people could say is that they threw a perfect game in high school. Can you take us through what your mindset was in that game and how you pulled it off?
ML: It was honestly kind of a crazy day because I wasn’t really feeling that good when I was warming up. And you know, I go out there and the first inning—I threw it like maybe through seven or eight pitches—it was just like, first batter hits the first ball, second guy takes three pitches, next guy takes three or four pitches and I’m out of the inning. I was like, all right, you know, that was pretty quick. And the next couple of innings are not seven-pitch innings but they’re like, 12, 14, 15, pitch counts. So I made it into the fourth and fifth inning in 30-something pitches. A crazy low amount of pitches, like uncharted territory entirely. After like the fifth or sixth inning I realized that I hadn’t thrown from the stretch yet. I pitched from the wind up. With a runner on, you know, you go to the stretch. I realized, like the fifth or sixth inning, that I hadn’t gone to the stretch. I was like, “Oh God.” I just didn’t want to jinx myself, so I didn’t say anything to anybody. The fifth inning goes by, no base runners. Sixth inning goes by, no base runners and in high school we play seven innings. There’s a mercy rule after 10 runs, so if you’re winning by more than 10 at the end of an inning they call the game. We were winning nine to nothing. In the sixth inning I was just like “Can we please just get a run? I don’t want to have to go back out there to maybe mess it up.” And we ended up getting a run in the bottom of the sixth. So that counts, 18 up, 18 down, that’s a perfect game. But it was kind of a rollercoaster of emotions.
SL: For sure, once you get in your head about all the superstitions, it’s crazy.
ML: Yeah, baseball is such a mental game that if you get in your own head, it’s almost impossible to succeed. So you kind of just have to take all the mental stuff out of it and just go out there and play.
SL: Obviously, that sticks out as a highlight of your high school career. Do you have a favorite game you’ve been a part of in college so far?
ML: The first game that I pitched in college is always special just because it was the first one, and I came into a game that we were not having very much success on the mound. We had run out three or four different pitchers in this inning and I came in and got three quick outs, and that was the bottom of the seventh, and then I finished the eighth and ninth inning, so I ended up getting credited with a save in my first appearance, so that is always going to be special to me. But I think my favorite game might be the game against MacMurray last year, the one that I started, because it was my first start. We pitched so well as a team that game that I gave up one hit at the top of the fifth inning, but if I didn’t give up that one hit, we would have thrown a combined perfect game. I think that was just a great experience to see all of us on the same wavelength there. I’d say those are two of my favorites.
SL: What has it been like to be part of such a great pitching group at Wash. U.?
ML: I’ve had a lot of great mentors come through this program in the years above me. We had John Howard my freshman year. We had a bunch of guys in the junior class for my freshman year, two years ahead of me, and several guys in the class above me that are seniors now. I’ve just tried to learn as much as I can from them about pitching and just our program in general. And then I’ve tried to pass that on to the classes below us. I think just seeing everybody buy into that mindset of, we’re a team, we’re a unit, and we go out there and compete as such, it’s just a great thing to see.
SL: It’s been just under a year since Wash. U. baseball last played a game. With the 2021 season right around the corner, how have you and the team been preparing to go back to competition after such a long hiatus?
ML: We’ve had so many hours of practice without a game that I think we’re all just excited to finally get back on a baseball field, because even this semester we’ve been in the varsity gym practicing and on Francis Field, but we haven’t been on our actual baseball field yet. So I think we’re all excited just to go out there next Saturday and be on a baseball field again and play another team from another school, and actually get out there and play a game again, because, like you said, it’s been since last March since we played a game.
SL: What keeps you motivated to keep practicing for this season, after having last season cut short?
ML: I think it goes back again just, you get to play again. We’ve had so long since we’ve gone out and played a game that meant something, aside from just our intrasquad scrimmages where, I mean we’re getting better and we’re kind of playing a game, but it’s just against ourselves. So to go out there and play a game that actually matters, like this game counts, is just exciting. I mean, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. We have a baseball game in a week, and I think we’re all just excited to go out there and play the game again.
SL: There is going to obviously be a ton of excitement, but do you think there are going to be any nerves associated with going back to a game after almost a year?
ML: I think we have such a veteran team that I don’t think there are going to be many nerves in terms of opening day. We’re just going to be excited to play again. Obviously some of the freshmen are going to have nerves. I mean, I had nerves, I was terrified when I got in the game. My first game freshman year, I got up on the mound and my legs are shaking. I have a video of it, you can kind of see my front leg just shaking up there, but you settle in, and I think we’re all going to just settle in pretty quickly and get after it.
SL: What do you think your teammates would say is your best quality?
ML: I guess just that I’m always there for the rest of the team. I’m not the guy that is the superstar, or gets all the attention, but I’m always there picking my teammates up like “Hey, that was a good play you made, here’s what you could do better,” or like, “You made this play in this situation; here’s how you can adjust that.” Just being in the game and wanting everybody to make like the minor adjustments to get better and being supportive for everybody.
SL: What are some of your favorite things to do outside of baseball?
ML: I really like playing the piano. That’s one of my main hobbies. I have a keyboard on the other side of the room that you can’t see right now, but I spent a lot of time doing that. I like just hanging out with my friends. Obviously it’s been a tough thing to deal with, with COVID you have to limit that, so I’m hoping this all ends quickly so I can see some of my friends outside of baseball again. I like playing video games too.
SL: Is there a story behind wearing the number 35? I think it’s always interesting if there’s a story behind the number.
Matt Lopes: So, actually, yes, there is. I was between 35 and 31. So 31 I would want for Greg Maddux who’s my favorite pitcher ever, but I picked 35 because one of my favorite shortstops is Brandon Crawford of the Giants. And people always say I look like him because I have long hair like he does. I figured since I wasn’t going to be a shortstop anymore, I would wear 35 for him, because I’m always going to be a pitcher so I’m always going to have Maddux to look up to, but I figured I’d pick 35 just to keep a little bit of shortstop in me.
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