Just about everything the state's best prep pitcher needed to know about baseball he learned on a
90-mile stretch of East Texas highway.
Sure, Klein (Texas) senior Matt Purke has spent countless hours on the diamond mastering his seemingly effortless
left-handed delivery and developing his nearly unhittable repertoire of pitches. But what separates the best from the rest isn't the nuts and bolts of pitching, it's the mental makeup of the pitcher. And Purke has logged more than 50,000 miles in the backseat of his parents' cars getting that part just right.
From analyzing a pitcher's razor-thin margin for error to running through detailed scenarios, Purke's parents and older brother used youth baseball road trips to prepare Purke for anything. Successes were celebrated and failures dissected. Tears were shed and laughs shared. And as Purke developed into the player who today is the nation's No. 2 prospect in the ESPNU player rankings, he realized more and more just how integral his family was to his success.
"My family gives me strength and confidence," Purke says. "They believe in me. I'm the one on the mound, but we're all in it together."
Raised in Lufkin, Purke outgrew the local baseball scene by the time he was 10. He then joined up with a Beaumont-based club team, which meant at least three trips per week up and down Route 69 -- nearly 200 miles per round trip.
There were only two rules during weekday trips: Purke had to finish his homework on the way to Beaumont and sleep on the way home. But weekend trips were business time. Purke's
parents, Lawrence and Margaret, were constant companions and his older brother, Jason, came along as often as he could. Talk in the car didn't always start off focused on baseball, but that's what it seemed to come back to.
"They'd throw stuff at me like, 'Runners on second and third, two outs, right-handed batter is up, what do you throw him?'" Purke says. "Then I'd ask stuff like, 'Is the guy a slap hitter or does he have power? Does he like to crowd the plate or hang back in the box?' We'd go back and forth like that until we'd worked the situation all the way through."
The car also became the place to deal with disappointments, like when Purke overran second base and was tagged out in a crucial situation during a huge youth tournament. It didn't matter that Purke would never need to be
an expert base runner; the miscue
provided a valuable opportunity to
discuss the importance of never getting too high or low in baseball because there's always another game.
"It was clear very early that Matt was blessed with the God-given talent to be successful," his father says. "So car rides were an opportunity for us as a family to work out exactly what else he needed to do to get there."
At this point, the sky is still the limit for Purke. He could easily be picked in the first round of the MLB Draft,
possibly even as the first high schooler off the board. Scouts love his ability to churn out low-90s fastballs with ease and dial it up for a little extra velocity when needed. He also owns two great secondary pitches in a changeup and a curveball, and he has a splitter that is still in the development process.
Matt Purke Favorites
TV Show: "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"
- Movie: "The Natural"
Actor: Mel Gibson
- Actress: Jessica Alba
That arsenal was more than enough to dominate the state last spring, as Purke posted a 12-1 record with a 0.37 ERA. But the most impressive number had to be his strikeout total of 147 in just 76.2 innings. He was subsequently selected to both
the Aflac All-American High School Baseball Game and the Under Armour
All-American Game, playing at Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field on
back-to-back weekends last August.
"Nothing rattles him; he doesn't think about baseball like that," Purke's father says. "He's extremely competitive and wants the ball in big games, so he's not going to get nervous in pressure
situations. Those situations are what he loves about the game."
He proved that playing for Team USA the past three summers. Purke owns a career 3.68 ERA in 22 innings for the U-16 and U-18 National Teams.
Purke experienced the ultimate
pressure situation while playing for the U-16 team three summers ago in Venezuela. He drew the start against Cuba, a game played in the most frenzied environment he'd ever witnessed. Armed guards and barbed-wire fences kept the raucous fans from spilling onto the field, and the Americans were escorted by security to and from their bus. Purke pitched valiantly in his first international appearance, holding the Cubans at bay and getting a no-decision as the U.S.
rallied to victory.
One of the low points of Purke's career came while playing for the
U-18s two summers ago, when he lost a frustrating game to Mexico. But he redeemed himself last summer by pitching one of the best games of his career against the Mexicans, a
complete-game, four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts.
"I usually don't let losses stick with me, but that loss to Mexico really ate me up," Purke says. "Getting to face them again and pitching one of the best games of my life erased that bad memory."
These days, every game feels like an international showdown for Purke, with major league scouts out en masse at each of his starts. He also has the option of attending TCU if he chooses not to sign with whichever team drafts him.
Either way, Purke already has his
summer mapped out. His parents bought him a fixer-upper 1965 Ford Mustang for his 16th birthday, and he plans to dedicate this summer to getting it on the road.
Even if he's successful, he'll probably still catch a ride with his family now and then, just for old time's sake.
Matt Remsberg covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.