Detroit Tigers’ Matt Vierling, Nick Maton on mission to help cultivate championship culture

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Matt Vierling and Nick Maton met for the first time in the summer of 2018. They already knew of each other through a mutual friend: Cole Daily, now a minor-league infielder in the Washington Nationals’ organization, was Vierling’s roommate at Notre Dame and Maton’s top competition in high school.

“You hear about good people,” Maton said.

“It’s a small world,” Vierling chimed in.

Vierling and Maton, an outfielder and an infielder with contrasting personalities, have been close friends from the beginning. More than four years later, they entered the clubhouse at the Detroit Tigers‘ spring training facility together to embark on a new adventure, carrying their duffle bags from the Philadelphia Phillies.

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Chemistry majors

It’s a rare combination of two young players who have experienced winning at the highest level. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson have emerged as vocal leaders in the clubhouse, but Vierling and Maton are here to help them cultivate a championship culture and rewrite the narrative about the Tigers.

“They know what the chemistry needs to look like,” said Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber, a 30-year-old two-time All-Star and the reigning NL leader in homers. “They know what it’s like to win. The biggest thing is not trying to force it. They can’t go in there and slam their feet down when they have Miguel Cabrera, Javy Báez there. It’s just being themselves. Guys will gravitate toward that.”

Vierling and Maton started hanging out in the South Atlantic League — aka the “Sally League” — with Low-A Lakewood, an affiliate of the Phillies, in 2018. There were long bus rides — oh, those 15-hour trips to Georgia — and even longer conversations about life and baseball.

They went to the championship series that season.

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The Phillies’ Low-A affiliate played in Lakewood, New Jersey. A host family showed Vierling some of the hot spots to hang out around town. The beach was about 20 minutes away. For him, it was a peaceful place to be as a first-year professional.

“There’s just not really much up there,” Maton said.

“I had a great time,” Vierling said.

In many ways, these guys are completely different.

Maton, a 26-year-old infielder who nicknamed himself “Wolfie,” loves to drink Mountain Dew. He barks at teammates, opposing players and umpires. There’s no shortage of energy keeping the mood upbeat. Vierling, a 26-year-old outfielder whom Maton nicknamed “Sherman,” is down-to-earth, quiet and aware of his surroundings. He brings a calm presence and doesn’t bark at anyone.

Both players, despite their differences, were crucial to helping the Phillies develop their culture last season. The kids, not the veterans, set the tone. Manager Rob Thomson allowed the youngsters to be themselves, and following in-game success last summer, their group received a new nickname from 30-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper, a two-time MVP and an 11-year MLB veteran.

The group — called “Phillies Day Care” — featured Maton, Vierling, Mickey Moniak, Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott.

“We were encouraged to have fun,” Bohm said.

“Two of the better guys you’ll meet,” Stott said of Vierling and Maton. “Two of the best guys and best teammates that I’ll probably ever have. But I’m excited for them to go get that opportunity.”

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The Phillies stormed through the postseason to take the National League pennant last season before losing to the Houston Astros in the World Series. Vierling hit .246 with six home runs in 117 games, while Maton hit .250 with five homers in 34 games. They both received playing time down the stretch in September and in the World Series.

It seemed like a gathering occurred after every game.

The Phillies shared team dinners on the road. They hung out in someone’s hotel room. They trash-talked each other and discussed the world beyond baseball. The entire experience sounded like one big family of ball players.

“Everyone genuinely liked each other,” Schwarber said. “After a good game, everyone hung out and had a drink, a drink of water or whatever. After a bad game, everyone hung out and had two drinks of water. You know what I mean? We talked about things and learned from things.”

“It organically happened,” Vierling said.

Winning, of course, was the driver for the Phillies’ culture, but the young players influenced the veterans. Together, they stepped on the gas. The Tigers, at some point in the near future, hope to see that type of culture within their clubhouse. It wasn’t there last season.

In early January, the Tigers acquired Vierling and Maton (with catcher Donny Sands) from the Phillies in exchange for left-handed reliever Gregory Soto and utility player Kody Clemens. In Detroit, Vierling and Maton will receive opportunities to become established in the big leagues. In Philadelphia, they were role players on a star-studded squad.

“I think their baseball acumen is why we traded for them, not to add the softer subtleties,” said Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, who emphasized that shortstop Javier Báez, left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, bench coach George Lombard and third base coach Gary Jones, as well as himself with the 2017 Houston Astros, have won World Series championships.

“They’re hungry to become regulars,” Hinch continued. “They still haven’t established themselves. They still have a lot of work to do to become bona fide everyday players. But I love what they bring to our team.”

Off the field, the Phillies aren’t the same anymore.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a void that’s going to have to be filled with missing those two guys,” Schwarber said. “That’s going to be on us to step up in the clubhouse and make these other guys that came in here feel more welcomed.”

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Barks and bite

Vierling and Maton showed their new organization a taste of the winning atmosphere during a spring training game at the end of February, when the Tigers played the Phillies at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater. Maton stepped off the bus, unpacked his bags in the visitor’s clubhouse and emerged from the dugout.

He immediately saw Howie Kendrick, a former 15-year MLB veteran and the Phils’ special assistant to the general manager, throwing batting practice in warmups.

“Still can’t throw a strike, Howie!” Maton shouted.

Brandon Marsh, a 25-year-old outfielder acquired by the Phillies at last year’s trade deadline, sprinted across the field when he saw his former teammates. He hugged Vierling and Maton, like three brothers reuniting, as Tigers players stood around their dugout and watched in awe.

“Hey, Wolfie,” Marsh said. “We’re barking today. You better bring it.”

“All that vibe gone in that clubhouse?” Maton jabbed back.

Marsh and Maton barked at each other as they went their separate ways. During the Tigers’ batting practice, Vierling swung the bat while Schwarber, Maton, Hinch and Triple-A Toledo manager Anthony Iapoce stood behind a protective screen in shallow center field.

“Come on, Matty!” Schwarber yelled. “You can do it!”

Throughout the game, Phillies players barked at Maton while he played third base. Backup catcher Garrett Stubbs was the loudest, but pretty much everyone had something to say. When Maton stepped to the plate, catcher J.T. Realmuto refused to speak to him.

“We were boys back in the day, but new day, new age,” Maton said. “They can’t get in my head. J.T. didn’t even talk to me. He thought he could get in my head that way. No chance. I was talking so much smack to him.”

“Loudest was probably the young guys: Bohm, Marsh, Stubbie, all those guys,” Vierling said. “They’re hilarious, and they’re a good time.”

Now, for the big question: Can the Tigers replicate what the Phillies had under the hood, with assistance from Vierling and Maton?

The Phillies’ manager thinks so.

“Yeah, I think anything can happen,” said Thomson, who described Vierling and Maton as two of his favorite players. “The young guys brought it here last year. They came up here and gave the veteran guys a lot of energy when they needed it.”

Every clubhouse is filled with 26 different personalities at a time. The one way to get players to jell through the highs and lows of a demanding 162-game season is allowing each player to unapologetically be themselves.

The Tigers already have a solid foundation in Greene and Torkelson. They’re speaking up more often heading into their second seasons. Adding Vierling and Maton could help guide the all the players toward a championship culture because they’ve experienced it before.

They aren’t afraid to embrace their contrasting personalities.

“This is a super-young squad,” Maton said. “I feel like everyone gets along here and everybody pulls for each other. There are a lot of personalities on this team, too. This could be a really good squad.”

“I feel the same way,” Vierling said. “Everybody seems to be around the same age, except for that veteran group. But I really do feel like that can happen here, if it hasn’t already. It seems like everybody likes each other and is pulling for each other regardless of the competitions. That’s a good sign.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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