When Mat Nelson enrolled at Florida State for the summer semester in 2018, the Largo, Florida, native had his next couple years mapped out. He would become the starting catcher for the Seminoles, lead Florida State to the College World Series and get taken in the 2020 Major League Baseball Draft after his sophomore season.
A prized recruit out of Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater, Nelson started 52 games at catcher for the Noles in 2019, including on Opening Day against Maine. That first time behind the plate, Drew Parrish, Chase Haney and Conor Grady combined to throw the 10th no-hitter in FSU history.
“I came to FSU knowing that the pitching was going to be good,” Nelson says. “I wouldn’t say I was expecting a no-hitter on Opening Day, but it’s college baseball.”
Nelson hit .282 as a freshman and started all eight games of FSU’s magical postseason run that culminated in the program’s 23rd College World Series appearance. He was the Seminoles’ most productive hitter in Omaha. Everything was going to plan.
But the 2020 college baseball season, cut short last month due to the international COVID-19 pandemic, has helped put Nelson’s future into perspective. The condensed 17-game schedule limited Nelson’s exposure to professional teams. Additionally, Major League Baseball announced an agreement with the Players Association that the 2020 draft could be as few as five rounds, down from the usual 40 it has been for over 50 years.
A five-round draft would reduce the number of players taken by nearly 1,000.
“It still is up in the air right now,” Nelson said about his draft prospects for this season. “Money will go quick, players are going to go quick and the draft is going to go quick.”
In a draft class loaded with pitching prospects, including junior teammates CJ Van Eyk and Shane Drohan, Nelson knows that only the top position players will be taken.
“For guys like me, Nander [De Sedas], Elijah [Cabell], we haven’t had the college experience like most juniors and seniors have. We haven’t seen everything they have seen. Usually the guys with more experience at higher levels get taken, especially if they are performing well. It’s still an option to go, but if it doesn’t happen, I’m thrilled to return to Florida State.
“I chose this place for a reason. I didn’t just come here to spend two years and go to professional baseball. I chose FSU because it is a great university, close to home and where I always wanted to be.”
I chose this place for a reason. I didn’t just come here to spend two years and go to professional baseball. I chose FSU because it is a great University, close to home and where I always wanted to be.SOPHOMORE CATCHER MAT NELSON
The MLB draft says players from four-year colleges must be out of high school three years or be 21 years old. Nelson, born in January 1999, falls into the latter category. He says the only reason he is eligible for this summer’s draft is because he had to repeat the third grade, making him a year older than most classmates.
“I didn’t really care about school, I only cared about baseball. I rushed through the FCAT, had the attention span of a pea. Christmas-tree’d the tests. I didn’t understand the effect it would have on me,” Nelson said.
“It helped me realize that if I take care of school, that takes care of baseball. It gave me something to look forward to during the school day – instead of anticipating playing baseball all day, I began to focus on school and baseball separately.”
With his friends moving up to fourth grade, Nelson says he was made fun of for a bit. Never one to let the teasing bother him, Nelson learned early on the importance of academics and the impact it can have.
“When I look back, I don’t regret it because I’m in a great situation at a great university.”
And Nelson is thriving with his opportunity.
Last year, Nelson became the first freshman catcher in Florida State history to make the All-ACC Academic Team. He was one of three Seminoles to make the team, which combines excellence in the classroom with production on the field to recognize the top scholar-athletes in the conference.
Nelson is also using his Florida State experience to better the community.
As a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at Florida State, Nelson works with the community service and volunteer groups to host events around town for underprivileged youth over the holidays.
Since he was six, Nelson and his family have volunteered with the Donn Davis Foundation in Clearwater. Aboard a 50-foot flatbed truck escorted by the Clearwater Police Department, Nelson and his family would visit home shelters and give Christmas to the children. Each kid would get a bag of toys from Santa and Mrs. Claus.
“I thought that would be a good thing to bring to Tallahassee and Florida State,” Nelson said. “I talked with Hunter Napier [FSU Track & Field], the Community Service chair for SAAC. I asked if they did anything similar around Christmas, and he said they didn’t.
“So one night we were in the Varsity Club wrapping a ton of presents and delivered them to one of the housing centers so those that are less fortunate could experience a Christmas this year. It was rewarding being able to implement an event like this that hopefully continues to expand moving forward.”
Nelson was also part of the fall festival over Halloween at the Boys Club in Tallahassee.
Back home in Largo, Nelson has spent the past month honing his craft for whenever he gets to be on the diamond again.
“Just something to stay in the routine,” Nelson says. “I’ve been working with Rick Stegbauer and Chad Fletcher, the head coach at Tarpon Springs. They both do a great job. Whatever I learn from those two, I bring back to Tallahassee. I’m also able to bring the things that Meat (head coach Mike Martin, Jr.) and Mike Metcalf have shown me at Florida State and introduce it back home.”
I don’t know what will happen with the draft, either this year or whenever it might happen. But I know that, thanks to Roy and Meat, and Mike Martin and all the coaches I’ve had in my career, I’ll keep fighting every day to reach the big leagues.NELSON
Before statewide shelter-in-place orders were enacted, Nelson planned to meet up with friends from Calvary, including current freshman Penn State pitcher Braden Halladay. The two were teammates on the Calvary Christian teams that won 60 consecutive games and the 2017 4A state title while earning the No. 1 ranking in the country.
Braden’s dad, Roy Halladay, was a two-time Cy Young Award winner in the Major Leagues and helped coach the Calvary team in 2017 before passing away in a plane crash in November 2017, prior to Nelson’s senior season.
“I remember the first time I met him, I was standing on the field for the National Anthem during a Phillies spring training game in Clearwater,” Nelson says. “At that time, Roy was in his prime and he had to be 6-8. He was mammoth.
“When I met him in high school, either he shrunk or I grew a lot. What I didn’t realize was his baseball career ended because he had to have his spine compressed, so he was about four inches shorter than I remembered years before.”
During Nelson’s sophomore season, with Braden on the junior varsity team, Roy would operate the scoreboard with Nelson’s dad. Roy joined the coaching staff prior to the 2017 season.
“He started to open himself up once he was on the coaching staff and from that day forward, it was an experience that you dream of…once I got to know him, he was just an average guy,” Nelson said. “He loved the new electronics, drones, iPads. He’d fly his drones over practice all the time. Obviously loved flying. Getting to know him, it showed me that these guys aren’t just athletes, they are people too. He taught me a lot about baseball and about life.”
— matheu nelson (@matheu_nelson) November 5, 2017
When Roy died piloting his ICON A5 plane on November 7, 2017, Nelson was hitting with teammates at the Calvary batting cages as reports started to trickle out that it might be the Cy Young winner’s plane. When it was confirmed, Nelson thought about the flight he had taken with Roy just three days earlier.
“That was my first time on a plane,” Nelson says. “It was surreal. Just goes to show that one day you’re here and the next day isn’t promised. It was three days after that he died. We played a fall game that Monday and he was gone on Tuesday. It all happened so suddenly.”
Nelson continues to think about his relationship with Roy and the impact he had in their short time together. He knows that completing the checklist he had when he entered Florida State, getting drafted and eventually reaching the majors, would mean a lot to the late Halladay.
“I don’t know what will happen with the draft, either this year or whenever it might happen,” Nelson says. “But I know that, thanks to Roy and Meat, and Mike Martin and all the coaches I’ve had in my career, I’ll keep fighting every day to reach the big leagues.”
That was my first time on a plane. It was surreal. Just goes to show that one day you’re here and the next day isn’t promised. It was three days after that he died. We played a fall game that Monday and he was gone on Tuesday. It all happened so suddenly.NELSON