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From Penn to Durham: The journey of Duke baseball slugger Peter Matt

Peter Matt knows how to engage his lower half throughout his swing, and his nine homers are perfect proof of it.
Peter Matt knows how to engage his lower half throughout his swing, and his nine homers are perfect proof of it.

A draft hopeful chose to go back to what felt like square one. 

Now, he’s exactly where he wants to be.

Peter Matt, one of Duke’s purest talents, had long envisioned a path without Duke, but now he leads the Blue Devils with 142 at bats, 44 hits and a slugging percentage of .570, putting him in position to begin a fruitful professional career. 

Interestingly, the first time head coach Chris Pollard spotted Matt, the latter was donning a Penn uniform, competing against the Blue Devils in the 2019 season while neither had any idea that Matt would soon become one of Pollard's brightest stars.

That first encounter came March 5, 2019 at a chilly Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and Matt squared up a single and scored two runs as part of Penn's come from behind, extra-inning upset win.

“He was a guy that, when he made contact the ball came off the bat a little bit different, produces a lot of really loud contact,” Pollard said of the first time he saw Matt play.

Despite Matt's performance being two years prior to his transfer, Pollard did not forget the slugger when COVID-19 opened up the transfer gates across the NCAA.

“That Penn team—I remember thinking that they could really hit, and [Matt] was a big centerpiece of why, so when his name went in the [transfer] portal, he's a guy that immediately climbed to the top of our radar,” Pollard said.

Taking his talents to Penn

A three-sport athlete in high school, Matt was the captain of the Mamaroneck High School baseball and football teams, in addition to playing basketball. As a third baseman and middle infielder who could swing the bat, the New York kid looked up to then-Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as a model of a baseball player. His high school career came close to emulating the raw talent of Jeter, as the star third baseman posted a ridiculous career slashline of .415/.492./.641, putting him as a top 1000 recruit in Perfect Game’s 2016 class. 

“I guess when it came to high school I kind of got to the point where I realized I wanted to try to play college baseball,” Matt said. “I talked to a bunch of schools—I talked to a few ACC schools when I was in high school, but I never had any offers from ACC schools or anything like that so I kind of set my eyes on the Ivy League and that's where the majority of my high school recruiting was done.”

The Larchmont, N.Y., native decided to head to West Philadelphia, where he would play for Penn. Penn, of course a great school for Matt and his academics, had neither made an NCAA tournament nor won the conference in 21 years, but it was still a worthy start for Matt’s career. In his first year as a Quaker, he played a bit in his natural infield position, but Penn head coach John Yurkow experimented with Matt in the outfield as well. At the plate, Matt struggled and only batted .223, but that number only sprung upward through his four years there. 

Matt became one of the centerpieces of the Penn lineup in the 2018 and 2019 seasons and permanently moved to right field, attracting the attention of professional scouts after they noticed his offensive prowess.

“Once I started getting interest [from pro scouts], I decided I should really go play summer ball and try to continue to play and get more exposure,” Matt said.

The then-rising senior was placed in one of the top summer leagues in the Midwest, where he would play right field for the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters in the Northwoods League. While his team placed in the top of its division, his summer batting average and slugging percentages of .219 and .269, respectively, made for one of Matt’s worst statistical stretches of his career. Despite the lower numbers, he still looks back on his experience in a positive light.

“I didn't play very well, but it was a great experience and I learned a lot from it and I think it just made me a better player,” Matt said.

That 2019 season was a huge step for Matt, as he finished the year with the Ivy league-lead in runs scored, set the program-record with 195 at-bats and hit a solid .328, not to mention doing so while maintaining a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. In the shortened 2020 season, Matt exploded offensively, batting .457 over the eight games to place him at 10th in the nation in the category, but COVID-19 prevented Matt from continuing his hot start.  

The Devil went down to Durham

After the cancellation of spring sports in 2020, Matt was left with an extra year of eligibility.

“I was expecting to play my fourth year at Penn, and either get a chance at getting drafted—that was obviously the goal—or if not, then I obviously would have just had to move on with my life,” Matt said.

The stark contrast between his original reaction to the COVID-19 shutdown and where he is now is a marvel to behold—Matt initially thought his baseball career might be over due to the shortened MLB Draft meaning he had almost no chance to land a contract.

“As soon as we were granted the extra year of eligibility, I decided I was going to leave Penn, and I was going to try something new. And I entered the transfer portal,” Matt said. 

“It's kind of like I was a junior in high school again going back to the recruiting process. I was just emailing schools—some schools answered but a lot of schools didn't answer. A lot answered with, ‘You know we don't have room for you,’” Matt said. “Coach Pollard and the coaches here said that they needed some depth in the outfield and they gave me an opportunity so it seemed like a great fit at the time.”

All season long, Matt has been nothing short of an excellent fit in the Blue Devils lineup, as the graduate student has flourished since his arrival in Durham. 

Sluggers just wanna have fun

Matt had only hit five home runs in his collegiate career before the 2021 season. As of April 26, he’s crushed nine on the year—also leading the team—including two multi-homer games in back-to-back series.

“I think this year I've tapped into my power a little bit more than I have in years past, but I like to think that I can hit for average, I can run a little bit, I can play good defense in the outfield,” Matt said. “So I try to pride myself on being a well-rounded baseball player and not getting caught up in too much of one aspect of the game.”

The powerful swing of his has really only translated into the long ball since the start of this season, but Matt credits his little league development with producing the force behind his swing. 

“I think [using the lower half] is something I've actually done since I was really young, it's one of the things that my hitting coach from back home that I worked with, since I was like, six or seven years old, really emphasized,” Matt said.

Pollard also emphasized his pride in Matt’s ability to not get caught up in the nitty-gritty of the game.

“He doesn't take himself too seriously—he's not afraid to laugh at himself and guys appreciate that,” Pollard said.

As a matter of fact, that Penn-Duke matchup from two years ago still lingers in the walls of the Duke dugouts as Matt gets to poke some playful fun at his teammates without stirring up any hard feelings.

“I definitely like to give the guys and sometimes coaches a hard time about beating them twice back in 2019,” Matt said. 

However, this year has not always been one for joking around, as Duke has ridden waves of winning and losing to the point that it holds a .500 record and is likely to miss the NCAA tournament barring a major turnaround. But while Duke may be struggling, Matt has been there to pick up his teammates with his consistent play, and some of that he credits to some wisdom he took from Pollard in order to stay focused when the game seems to be slipping away from his team. 

“Baseball is a team game but it's also an individual game and you can really only control so much of the game, and you really do have to take it one pitch at a time,” Matt said. “Sometimes the game can get sped up on you, you can get lost in the moment, but I just try to, especially now that I'm in my fifth year of college baseball, I learned to take a step back and just, like I said, take it one pitch at a time no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is. I can only control that next pitch.”

Big league blueprint

Though he likely imagined a slightly different path—one without COVID-19 or transferring—Matt is in an excellent position to further his baseball career. Additionally, he is completing a Master of Management Studies degree in the Fuqua School of Business, taking advantage of his fifth year of collegiate baseball to build on his academic foundation from his time at Penn.

Despite the long road attached to a professional baseball career for most players, Pollard has faith that Matt will be successful at the next level, much like he has been upon joining the rigor of the ACC.

“I believe [Matt] will be drafted and I think he's going to go on to have a really nice professional career,” Pollard said. “There's always a place in this game for guys that can hit, he can hit, and I see him as a guy that could potentially go in the top 10 rounds.”

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