Matt Nelson learned the value of patience during his first three years as a St. Thomas baseball player.
He pitched on the junior varsity his freshman and sophomore years, and also began his junior season there. He was called up to the varsity but made just two appearances in relief and didn’t dress for the NCAA Division III tournament, which his team won.
As a senior this year, he made the varsity staff for his first spring break trip to Florida. He pitched five innings in relief in the opening game against Lawrence and picked up his first career win. He got his first career start two days later against Grinnell and won again. Two more starts followed, against Bethel and Gustavus on the road, and two more wins resulted.
All of a sudden, Nelson found himself with some of the best statistics on the team – a 4-0 record and an 0.75 ERA in 24 innings. He has held opposing batters to a .195 average, struck out 20 and given up only four walks.
So just what happened? Why the big transformation?
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into this year,” Nelson said. “”I hoped I would get some chances, and I have been lucky to capitalize on them. Fortunately, the other teams haven’t been hitting the ball too hard. I’ve been able to sneak by them.”
“Sneaky” isn’t the word that St. Thomas Coach Chris Olean uses to describe Nelson’s performance. Olean says the 6-foot-2, 215-pound southpaw from Benilde-St. Margaret is a hard worker who is full of confidence. And patience.
“Matt just gets better and better every game,” Olean said. “We put him in some lesser-pressure situations in Florida and he responded well. He has taken the opportunity and run with it.”
Nelson loves competition. The St. Louis Park native played basketball, baseball and football at Benilde-St. Margaret, where the Red Knights finished third in the state baseball tournament his junior year. He pitched and played first base, and chose St. Thomas over Xavier in Cincinnati for college because he wanted to be closer to home.
Olean and Nelson agree his success this year largely has been a result of throwing strikes, especially on first pitches. Nelson struggled with his control in the past but has found that all of the extra work with his coach paid off. He even has mixed in a few sidearm pitches, at Olean’s suggestion.
“Going out there and getting comfortable on the mound is important,” he said. “I need to be sharp every game. I’ve never been the hardest-throwing pitcher. I don’t overpower guys. I just throw to spots. I want to put the ball in play and get back in the dugout.”
“Matt has a well-located fastball, a decent changeup and a good curveball,” Olean said. “He’s been able to throw his pitches in good spots, and those can result in strikeouts.”
Nelson admits he has been fortunate in the amount of run support his teammates have provided. He has cruised comfortably in all four wins plus a relief appearance, as the Tommies scored 33 runs while he was on the mound.
“That sure makes it easier,” he said. “I just have to go out there and throw strikes.”
Nelson, a finance major, will graduate in May. He has an internship this semester with Punch and Associates, an Edina investment firm, and he likes that line of work.
In the meantime, though, he has a few more starts – and, he hopes, a few more wins – ahead of him. He doesn’t want to rush the season. It’s taken him a long time to get to this position, and he intends to enjoy every moment.
He is, after all, a patient young man.