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How Tyler Matzek conquered the yips and became the MLB postseason’s most dominant reliever: “He’s all heart and courage”

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How Tyler Matzek conquered the yips and became the MLB postseason’s most dominant reliever: “He’s all heart and courage”

Lauren Matzek still can’t quite believe it.

Her husband, Atlanta Braves left-handed reliever Tyler Matzek, a pitcher once so haunted by performance anxiety and a case of the yips that his baseball career had turned to ashes, is in the World Series.

“I’m immensely proud of him,” Lauren said Monday on the eve of Tuesday’s Game 1 between the Braves and Astros at Minute Maid Park. “It’s been incredible to see the time and effort and all of the heart and efforts he’s put in. And now we’re here.

“To make it back to the big leagues was always the goal for him. But now, to see him in the World Series and being so dominant… exceeds anything I ever imagined.”

Matzek, the former Rockies starter who was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft, has pitched in nine of the Braves’ 10 postseason games this fall, posting a .118 opponents’ average with 17 strikeouts and four walks in 10 1/3 innings. His eight scoreless appearances in the postseason are one behind Mark Wohlers’ franchise record in the 1996 postseason.

“It’s all been pretty unbelievable,” Matzek said via phone from his hotel room in Houston. “It was always the dream, just to get back to the majors and show what I could do. I’ve wanted to be as aggressive as I can and help my team win.

“When baseball gets taken away from you, then you get moments like this, it’s incredible. One thing I have learned through all of it is this: you learn to embrace the moment. If you do something good, embrace it. If you do something bad, OK, you’ll do better the next time. Now, instead of just dwelling on the bad things, all of the time, I celebrate the good things.”

Matzek, 31, credits two people for his baseball resurrection. His wife, of course, and Jason Kuhn, a former Navy SEAL, who once had his own ambitions of being a major league pitcher before the yips ended his dreams.

On Saturday night, Kuhn sat alone in the living room of his home in Gallatin, Tenn., watching TV, transfixed by Game 6 of the National League championship series.

Provided by Jason Kuhn

Jason Kuhn

It was the seventh inning and the Los Angeles Dodgers had cut the Braves’ lead to 4-2 and had runners on second and third, with nobody out. The crowd of 43,060 was getting antsy.

Into the game came Matzek.

Four years ago, he was out of baseball and told his wife it was time to quit. She wouldn’t let him.

Three years ago, he was living in an RV, pitching for the Texas AirHogs of the Independent American Association. He was lobbing 83 mph fastballs because when he cut loose, he tended to throw the ball to the backstop. Two years ago, he was all but begging for an invitation to spring training.

But Saturday night, Matzek was all about the mission at hand: getting the Braves to the World Series for the first time since 1999.

Whistling 96-99 mph fastballs, and mixing in a sharp-breaking 85-86 mph slider, he struck out future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols on four pitches. Then he struck out Stephen Souza Jr. on four pitches and fanned the dangerous Mookie Betts with three consecutive fastballs. Matzek came back out for the eighth, getting a three-pitch strikeout of Corey Seager and two soft groundball outs. Closer Will Smith took care of the Dodgers in the ninth and the NL pennant belonged to the Braves.

“His stuff was electric,” Kuhn said. “For him to get up there and strike out three guys, then strike out another in the eighth, was amazing. I was laughing, I was crying. I was just so incredibly happy for him.”

So was Braves all-star first baseman Freddie Freeman.

“It’s got to be one of the greatest pitching performances there’s ever been in the postseason,” Freeman told reporters after the game. “That was unbelievable. If they score, they’re starting to feel good about themselves. The fact they didn’t, that was a huge deflator right there.”

Matzek and Kuhn first hooked up in 2017 when former Rockies catcher Michael McKenry suggested Kuhn could help Matzek overcome the yips. McKenry and Kuhn both played baseball at Middle Tennessee State, though at different times.

“I really thought I had the stuff to pitch pro ball,” Kuhn recalled. “But in my senior season, I threw six wild pitches in one inning. The record for a game in our league was seven, and to be honest, I threw a lot more wild pitches than that, but they took pity on me and they stopped moving runners on me. That was the last competitive game I ever pitched.”

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and Kuhn joined the military with the goal of becoming a Navy SEAL. He made it, and along the way, he learned about himself.

“Courage creates freedom,” said Kuhn, who founded Stonewall Solutions, a company that counsels clients to create team-building, mental toughness, and leadership. “I learned that I could be imprisoned by the opinions of others and the odds, or I learn from my failures and keep moving forward.”

When “Hell Week” began for Kuhn and the others wishing to become Navy SEALS, there were 135 in the group. By the end, 20 were left.

“I never would have been one of them without failing in baseball,” he said.

And, as Kuhn got to know Matzek, he became convinced that he could get the pitcher back to the majors.

“Jason changed my perspective on life, on everything,” Matzek said. “From the point that I started working with him, the goal of getting back to the big leagues became realistic.”

Adds Kuhn, “We connected. I knew exactly what he was feeling. I had the yips. It’s a very lonely and confusing and devastating place to be.”

Matzek and Kuhn talked extensively on the phone, and Matzek journeyed to Tennessee to train. Fixing the pitcher was both a mental and physical process. When Matzek was on the mound, Kuhn would sometimes blare an airhorn in an attempt to rattle Matzek and break his concentration. Little by little, Matzek regained his confidence.

“Tyler had tried everything else, and I said to him, ‘It’s not working, is it?’ He said no. I told him, “I know how to beat this and it’s a step-by-step process.

“I don’t believe you just think they yips away, you have to train it away.”

There was a lot to “train away.”

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Justin Fields is set to return to practice with fractured ribs — but Andy Dalton is expected to get starter reps as the Chicago Bears prepare for the NFL-leading Arizona Cardinals

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Justin Fields is set to return to practice with fractured ribs — but Andy Dalton is expected to get starter reps as the Chicago Bears prepare for the NFL-leading Arizona Cardinals

Justin Fields will return to practice for the Chicago Bears on Wednesday afternoon, but Andy Dalton is expected to get the starter reps, increasing the chance the veteran will be the quarterback Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

Coach Matt Nagy said Fields will participate for the first time since suffering fractured ribs in a Nov. 21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

“I like where he’s at,” Nagy said.

Even so, saying Dalton will take reps with the starters is at least a sign the Bears are preparing to roll with him a week after he threw for 317 yards in a 16-14 victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. It marked the first time this season the Bears eclipsed 300 yards passing.

Nagy has been clear the depth chart remains unchanged and Fields is the starter when healthy. If he’s not fully cleared, it leaves the door open for Dalton, who has completed 64.3% of his passes this season for 788 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Neither quarterback was made available to media Wednesday, which is normally the day of the week when the starter talks.

If the Bears (4-7) want to keep alive their playoff hopes, they have little margin for error in the remaining six weeks. They’re one game behind Washington (5-6) for the seventh and final playoff spot in the conference, but six other teams have five or four victories. It’s a jumbled mess of teams trying to claw their way back to .500.

It’s at least worth wondering if Nagy and staff believe Dalton gives the Bears a better opportunity to win than Fields if the rookie is battling through pain.

“With Andy being able to come out here and get these reps today, it’ll allow us to really continue each day to see, ‘Justin, where you at?’ ” Nagy said. “ ‘What’s your pain today? How is it when you’re throwing?’ We’ve got to be able to say, ‘Is this something that we feel that he’s going to be the best he can be for us to help win us that game?’ Or is it going to hurt him more or hurt us? As the week goes on, we’re working through all that.”

The Cardinals are sifting through their own injury issues. Quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) have missed the last three games. With his team coming off its bye, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Monday that he was “hopeful” both would return Sunday at Soldier Field. Murray and Hopkins are expected to be limited on the Cardinals’ injury report later today.

The Cardinals have the best record in the NFL at 9-2. They are 6-0 on the road, having played well defensively all season. The defense has been especially dominant away from home. The Cardinals’ road wins have come by margins of 25, 12, 17, 23, 14 and 10 points. They have not given up more than 20 points in a road game and are the third team in league history to win at least their first six road games by 10 points or more, joining the 1968 Dallas Cowboys (seven) and 1936 Bears (six).

The Cardinals are ranked fifth in total defense, fourth in passing defense, third on third down and fourth in scoring defense, so whether it’s Fields or Dalton, a struggling offense will have a tall task. With any luck, Fields will be back in action soon as the Bears remain optimistic they will see signs of development in the stretch run.

“We’ve got to make sure medically he’s in a place where he’s safe,” Nagy said. “It’s important for him to continue to grow off of that momentum that he had those last couple games. You know we got into that (first) half against Baltimore and I thought (the Ravens) did a good job and then unfortunately (Fields) got hurt.

“I really felt like those last two games prior to that he had some moments in there where you could feel him growing. You saw him in practice — really starting to see it. So this is a part of life of playing quarterback in this league.”

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US reports 1st case of omicron variant in returning traveler

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Omicron keeps world jittery as more information drips out

By ZEKE MIILLER and RAF CASERT

The U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of the omicron variant Wednesday — a person in California who had been to South Africa — as scientists around the world raced to establish whether the new, mutant version of the coronavirus is more dangerous than previous ones.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, made the announcement at the White House.

“We knew it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” he said.

The infected person was identified as a traveler who had returned from South Africa on Nov. 22. The person, who was fully vaccinated but had not had a booster shot, tested positive on Monday and had mild symptoms that are improving, officials said. The person agreed to remain in quarantine, and all the individual’s close contacts have been reached and have tested negative.

At least 23 other countries have reported omicron infections, according to the World Health Organization, and governments have rushed to impose travel bans and other restrictions in hopes of containing it.

But the variant is still surrounded by many unknowns, among them: Is it more contagious than other versions, as some scientists are beginning to suspect? Does it make people more seriously ill? And can it evade the vaccine?

“Any declaration of what will or will not happen with this variant, I think it is too early to say,” Fauci said.

He said Americans should continue to follow public health advice to get vaccinated and get their booster shots. “If you look at the things we have been recommending, they’re just the same,” Fauci said.

Genomic sequencing on the patient’s virus was conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed it as consistent with the omicron variant.

“We will likely see this scenario play out multiple times across the country in the coming days or weeks,” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

“This particular case shows the system working as it was designed to work — an individual with travel history from South Africa, an astute laboratory and quick prioritization of the specimen for sequencing, and close coordination with public health officials.”

Nigeria and Saudi Arabia also reported omicron infections Wednesday, marking the first known cases in West Africa and the Persian Gulf region.

South African first researchers alerted the WHO to omicron last week. It is not known where or when the variant first emerged, though it is clear it was circulating in Europe several days before that alert.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it will take two to three weeks before it becomes fully clear what omicron can do to the world.

“This is, in normal times, a short period. In pandemic times, it’s an eternity,” she lamented.

At the same time the omicron is spreading new fear and uncertainty, the dominant delta variant is still creating havoc, especially in Europe, where many countries are dealing with a surge in infections and hospitalizations and some are considering making vaccinations mandatory.

Many countries have barred travelers from southern Africa, and some have gone further. Japan has banned foreign visitors and asked international airlines to stop taking new reservations for all flights arriving in the country until the end of December.

The U.S. is working toward requiring that all air travelers to the country be tested for COVID-19 within a day before boarding their flights, up from the current three days.

On Wednesday, the WHO warned that blanket travel bans are complicating the sharing of lab samples from South Africa that could help scientists understand the new variant.

World leaders continued to emphasize that the best way to contain the pandemic remains vaccinations.

For the first time, von der Leyen said EU nations should consider making vaccinations mandatory, as several have done for certain sectors, or as Austria has done overall. Altogether, 67% of the EU’s population is vaccinated, but that relatively high rate hasn’t stopped several countries from seeing surges.

Greece plans to impose fines of 100 euros ($113) per month on people over 60 who don’t get vaccinated. Slovakia is considering giving that age group 500 euros ($565) if they step forward for the shot. German Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, said he will back a proposal to mandate vaccinations for everybody.

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This story was corrected to show Nigeria now says it found the omicron variant in samples from November, not October.

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Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.

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Michigan teen charged in Oxford High School shooting

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Oxford High School shooting: Fourth student dies

By COREY WILLIAMS and ED WHITE

OXFORD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — A 15-year-old boy was charged Wednesday with murder, terrorism and other counts for a shooting that killed four fellow students and injured others at Michigan’s Oxford High School.

Charges against Ethan Crumbley were announced Wednesday, a few hours after authorities reported the death of a fourth teen from the school in southeastern Michigan. Crumbley is charged as an adult with one count of terrorism causing death, four counts of first-degree murder and seven counts assault with intent to murder.

Prosecutor Karen McDonald did not reveal a possible motive for the shooting Tuesday at Oxford High School, located in a community of about 22,000 people roughly 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Detroit. However, she said prosecutors are “confident” they can show the crime was premeditated.

“There is a mountain of digital evidence. Videotape, social media, all digital evidence possible,” she said.

Deputies rushed to the school around lunch time and arrested the suspect in a hallway within minutes. He put his hands in the air as deputies approached, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said late Tuesday at a news conference.

The boy’s father on Friday bought the 9 mm Sig Sauer used in the shooting, Bouchard said. He did not know why the man bought the semi-automatic handgun, which his son had been posting pictures of and practicing shooting, Bouchard said.

The four students who were killed were identified as 16-year-old Tate Myre, 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana, 17-year-old Madisyn Baldwin and 17-year-old Justin Shilling, who died Wednesday.

Bouchard said Myre died in a patrol car as a deputy tried to get him to an emergency room.

A teacher who received a graze wound to the shoulder left the hospital, but seven students ranging in age from 14 to 17 remained hospitalized through the night with gunshot wounds, he said.

The gun the boy was carrying had seven more rounds of ammo in it when he surrendered, Bouchard said.

Undersheriff Mike McCabe said the student’s parents advised their son not to talk to investigators. Police must seek permission from a juvenile’s parents or guardian to speak with them, he added.

After the attack, authorities learned of social media posts about threats of a shooting at the roughly 1,700-student school. The sheriff stressed how crucial it is for such tips to be sent to authorities, while also cautioning against spreading social media rumors before a full investigation.

McCabe downplayed the significance of a situation in early November when a deer’s head was thrown off the school roof, which he said was “absolutely unrelated” to the shooting. The incident prompted school administrators to post two letters to parents on the school’s website, saying they were responding to rumors of a threat against the school but had found none.

Bouchard said the student in custody in the shooting had no previous run-ins with his department, and he was not aware of any disciplinary history at school.

“That’s part of our investigation to determine what happened prior to this event and if some signs were missed, how were they missed and why,” he said.

The district said in a statement that all schools would be closed for the rest of the week.

Isabel Flores, a 15-year-old ninth grader, told Detroit television station WJBK that she and other students heard gunshots and saw another student bleeding from the face. They then ran from the area through the rear of the school, she said.

A concerned parent, Robin Redding, said her son, 12th-grader Treshan Bryant, stayed home Tuesday after hearing threats of a possible shooting.

“This couldn’t be just random,” she said.

Bryant said he had heard vague threats “for a long time now” about plans for a shooting.

At a vigil Tuesday night at LakePoint Community Church, Leeann Dersa choked back tears as she hugged friends and neighbors. Dersa has lived nearly all of her 73 years in Oxford. Her grandchildren attended the high school.

“Scared us all something terrible. It’s awful,” Dersa said of the shooting.

Pastor Jesse Holt said news of the shooting flooded in to him and his wife, including texts from some of the 20 to 25 students who are among the 400-member congregation.

“Some were very scared, hiding under their desks and texting us, ‘We’re safe, we’re OK. We heard gunshots, but we’re OK.’ They were trying to calm us, at least that’s how it felt,” he said.

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Associated Press journalists Ryan Kryska, Mike Householder and David Aguilar in Oxford Township, Michigan; Kathleen Foody in Chicago; and Josh Boak in Rosemount, Minnesota, contributed to this report.

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