Getting to know the Nationals in the AFL: Matt Grace

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by Kyle Brostowitz

The Arizona Fall League is known as the “finishing school” for the game’s top prospects. Over the course of the season, we will give readers a chance to get to know the players representing the Nationals as members of the Mesa Solar Sox.

Last week, we met infielder Tony Renda. Next up, meet left-hander Matt Grace, who is coming off his finest professional season.

Grace_MattGrace enjoyed a breakout year in 2014, going 5-1 with a 1.17 ERA in 50 appearances between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. He tallied 62 strikeouts while holding opposing hitters to a .211 average. He surrendered just one home run during the entire 2014 campaign. Featuring a heavy fastball, Grace produced a ground-ball rate of 69 percent this season. For context, the Major League average is usually around 44-45 percent.

Grace was selected in the eighth round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of UCLA. He has appeared in five games for the Solar Sox out of the bullpen, a role he became very familiar with this season.

We recently caught up with the California-native and asked him about his experience:

How are things going for you in Arizona?

The experience in Arizona has been great so far. Playing in the Arizona Fall League has been a lot of fun. Away from the field, Mesa and the surrounding areas have a lot to offer, so it has been cool.

How does it feel to put on the Nationals uniform every night?

I feel very honored to have been selected to play here. Putting on the Nats uniform every day is very gratifying. It is a special set-up here in the Fall League. I think all the players representing the Nationals organization here have done a great job so far.

What have you, or are you planning to, use the AFL to work on? What are your goals?

I am working on throwing more offspeed pitches during my time here, especially my slider. I feel very comfortable with where my fastball is at right now, but I’m trying to have a more consistent slider. I know I will be facing a lot of left-handers out of the ‘pen, so I’m trying to do a better job of throwing sliders off my fastball, and vice-versa.

How have you adjusted to the “pace of play” rules that are being implemented in the AFL?

We haven’t experienced the game play rules too much yet – they’re only implemented at the Salt River facility. But, I’m pretty quick in-between pitches and don’t take too much time warming up. For me it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

What has it been like getting to know your Mesa teammates and other top prospects in the game?

It’s been great to get to know some of the other guys on the Mesa team. We have some highly rated prospects on our team and it’s cool to see some of young, talented players out there. Also, being in the bullpen has been a lot of fun. It is a great group of guys.

What have you done on your off days?

Having Sundays off during the fall league is perfect. I’ve golfed a good amount. The courses out here are amazing. Besides that, we’ve watched a lot of football, hoping my fantasy team gets a win!

You’re coming off your best minor league season, what do you think were a few keys to your success this past season?

I think the main reason for my success the past season was just remaining focused and trying to execute quality pitches as much as possible. I worked on a couple of things with both pitching coaches – Chris Michalak and Paul Menhart – and I was able to quicken up my time to the plate with runners on base, and started to work exclusively out of the stretch. Throughout the year I stayed aggressive and became a consistent strike thrower.

Has your mentality changed since shifting to the bullpen?

I think my mentality is better suited for the bullpen. I’m able to be aggressive and attack hitters. Also, I like the chance to play every day.

Grace_Matt_actionThere are two coaches on the Mesa staff with significant big league experience (Ron Villone and Matt Wise). What, if anything, have you learned working with them for a few weeks? Especially Villone, being left handed.

They’ve been really informative and helpful. Talking with Wise has been great. He’s helped me with my changeup a good deal, and Villone has also been helpful. Aside from his stories, I’ve learned a lot about how he approached the game and the little things he did to be successful in the big leagues for so long. I want to learn from those guys as much as possible.

You, Neil Holland and Derek Self have spent some time together in the bullpen over the years. Do you have any stories that you can share about those guys?

The three of us have a great relationship. I’ve gotten to know Derek better because of the Fall League. He’s great. Neil and I have been on the same team for parts of five seasons, so we do have some great stories. He really loves to dance. All the time. During games, in the bullpen, away from the field, too. He’s very talented, too.

The AFL is generally known as a “hitter’s league.” Have you seen that, and has your approach changed based on the quality of hitters this league produces?

Being out in Arizona, the ball tends to carry a little more. The hitters are the same though. Quality pitches will get outs the majority of the time. I just try to focus on that and nothing else. The talent level is very high, but my approach doesn’t change.

Is there an added level of comfort for you, and the other pitchers, having Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino, fellow Nationals, as your catchers in the AFL?

There is a little bit of a comfort level with Pedro and Spencer behind the plate. I didn’t throw to them during the season at all, but worked with them in Florida before coming out to the Fall league. Getting to know their style and becoming comfortable with that has been beneficial.

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