He leads the minor leagues in homers. Can he be a star in the majors?
Outnumbered, outgunned and out of water balloons, a few members of the Lexington Legends backpedaled into their own bullpen.
Seuly Matias, the minor league baseball team's 19-year-old home run leader, smiled as the gang of about a half-dozen elementary school kids closed in on him and his teammates. A cascade of water balloons and ice chunks began to rain on the players, and Matias and another Legends player made a mad dash for the dugout where they found their secret weapon — a drink cooler brimming with blue Gatorade.
This week, Matias leads all of the minor leagues with 22 home runs (through Sunday's game) and will play in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game in Greensboro, N.C., on Tuesday.
Last week, during the Legends' final four-game home series before the All-Star break, Matias managed seven runs, eight hits and took part in a postgame water balloon fight that the Legends hosted with local summer day camps.
"It was fun, very fun," Matias said of the water balloon fight, which the Legends' players seemed to enjoy just as much as the kids. The 200-pound slugging machine signed with the Kansas City Royals three years ago when he was a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic. Assuming he doesn't get promoted, Matias is on track to surpass the South Atlantic League's single-season home run record of 40.
"He's pretty quiet, but he knows what he wants. He knows what he's capable of doing," Legends hitting coach Jesus Azuaje said. "We are very excited. He's shows up everyday with a positive attitude and wants to get better."
Azuaje said that Matias' power and hitting ability is "natural, it's something that you're born with."
Matias is the sixth of 10 children, and he's currently doing his best to make it far away from his mother, brothers and sisters.
"I miss my mom the most," said Matias, who added that he also misses the chicken, rice and beans of his home country.
He told the Kansas City Star that as a kid he milked cows and did manual labor to help keep his brothers and sisters fed. He attended school until the sixth grade and he spent much of his teenage years trying his best to get signed by an MLB team.
"He's coming from Latin America, and doesn't speak the language very well," Azuaje said. "He's good in the clubhouse, he's a good teammate and he's carrying himself pretty good, on and off the field."
Matias said that he spends multiple hours of his week learning English through Rosetta Stone. Along with improving his language skills, he said that he needs to "eliminate strikeouts" to be a potent major league hitter. Through the first half of the season, Matias was tied for third in the league in strikeouts with 82, and he was batting .244. Azuaje said the boom-or-bust results are just a symptom of Matias' youth.
"He knows he strikes out a lot," Azuaje said. "But he just goes up there with another mentality for the next at-bat and he just competes. That's what you ask from these young hitters. Sometimes they get down on themselves."
Matias does not lack confidence at the plate, Azuaje said. He's always competitive and that's part of what helps him perform at such a high level.
"'Watch, I'm going to do well at this next at-bat,'" Azuaje said that Matias tells him after he's struck out. "He's got to keep that positive thinking and things are going to come around for him."
Before Thursday's game against Columbia, Azuaje said that Matias came to him and told him that he was going to have a good game at the plate. In his first at-bat, Matias doubled, and later scored off a ball hit to the wall in left center field.
"He's pretty strong, he's only 19 years old, his size is pretty impressive and he's got more room to fill," Azuaje said. "So by the time he's 23, he's going to turn into a very powerful hitter."
Azuaje said that Matias hit a few of his 22 homers with strength of just one of his hands.
"When he's more mature and he's put all his stuff together and make the adjustment that he needs to make," Azuaje said. "Then, for me, he's going to be an All-Star."
South Atlantic League All-Star Game
When: 7:05 p.m.
Where: NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, N.C.