Gercken, Pobereyko Return to Explorers to ‘Shut the Back Door’
American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier Sioux City Explorers relievers Nate Gercken and Matt Pobereyko, who return to the team to close the door on opposing rallies.
Explorers Re-Sign RHPs Matt Pobereyko, Nate Gercken
“Shut the front door!” It’s a mildly clever saying that children (and some adults) can use around their parents and other adults to look like they are swearing without getting a bar of soap lodged between their lips. When used, it in no uncertain terms lets others know that they should stop talking because the words coming from their mouth are disturbing in some way. In other words, “SHUT UP!”
They may not be this coarse, but right-handers Nate Gercken and Matt Pobereyko have their own version of “shut up,” however, theirs is about stopping rallies more than silencing opponents. Although, the two are fully aware that when they enter games, they are sure they are going to silence opposing hitters, both their bats and their mouths.
However, while they are great at their craft, the two relievers have become much more to the Sioux City Explorers. The two combine to be a deadly backend of the Explorers bullpen, but they also have a unique chemistry that makes the bullpen as much a “Night at the Improv” as it does a warmup area.
On a Mission to Seek and Destroy
Standing next to each other, Matt Pobereyko and Nate Gercken are exactly what opposing wish they did not have to see in the eighth and ninth innings of games. Pobereyko stands in at 6-3, 220, while Gercken is 6-6, 220. With big beards and a death stare that would freeze Medusa, the two are the very epitome of what a backend bullpen guy should be.
The look as intimidating as one can imagine, but is a little surprising to Gercken. “Everybody asks us about that. We’re all joking and having fun and then when we walk onto the field everybody asks why we’re so angry. I don’t see it that way, but I guess that is how we look.”
“I’m normally just genuinely mad when I’m out there because it takes one pitch for me to be mad at somebody out there,” Matt explains. “I flip that switch pretty quick getting out there that I get fired up. Gerck rides me out about showing emotion on the field because he’s a stone face out there. He’s all ‘Oh, you’re hitting your glove.’ That’s just where I put my energy.”
Whatever the driving force, the results speak for themselves. Pobereyko finished tied for third in the league in saves with 24 and led the American Association in appearances with 47. He tossed 51.0 innings, allowing only 31 hits and 14 walks with 74 strikeouts and added a 3.18 ERA.
While he was shutting down opponents all season long, no outing was more memorable than Game 4 of the South Division Championship series. With the game tied after nine, Manager Steve Montgomery sent his closer out for the 10th, then the 11th, and the 12th. With a chance to advance to the American Association Championship series, the skipper was asking his closer, the guy used to pitching one inning to give him three innings in a tied ballgame. When Sioux City took the lead in the top of the 13th there was no doubt it was going to be for a fourth inning.
“He said, ‘You good.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m hanging in there.’ He’s like, ‘Well, you know, we’ll get someone going and the second we got a guy on base, I popped out to him at third base and said, ‘Hey, I’m going back out there. If we score, I’m going back out there.’
“Last week he tells me, ‘Ya, little did you know, you didn’t have a choice? You were going back out there.’ The conversation between innings, they listen to you but between Mongo (Manager Steve Montgomery) and Bobby (Pitching Coach Bobby Post), that if you’re out there and you say you’re good, odds are he’s going to let you keep going because he’s trusting in you that you still have your stuff, and in that game he just kind of let that happen.”
The Explorers won that game, advancing to the championship series thanks to their closer’s legendary performance.
Pobereyko set an Explorers record for saves in 2019, but he wouldn’t have gotten there had it not been for the guy who set the table for him most nights – Nate Gercken. Gercken was returning from a shoulder injury, but showed no ill effects of the injury. He appeared in 42 games, tossing 47.0 innings while allowing 53 total base runners, only 30 of which were hits. He also struck out 44 and posted a miniscule 1.91 ERA.
Nate also won four games, but the one stat that seems to bother him is that he ended up with zero saves. It is not that he couldn’t handle closing out games. It is that his partner in the bullpen refused to give him the opportunity.
“He’s gonna have to earn it, there’s no giveaways here. This isn’t a charity for closing games, that it’s just not ‘who’s next?’ If one comes up, I’m going to say I’m good to go and try to do it. I’ll go five or six days in a row in they don’t shut me down.”
Gercken understands his role and is ready to deliver whenever his manager needs him. “I know my role. If a save comes up I need to be ready for it regardless of situation or how many days he has gone in a row or anything like that. I’ll be ready when called upon.”
It’s All Fun and Games Until You Get the Call
While laser focused once they cross the white lines, no one will confuse either Nate Gercken or Matt Pobereyko of being stoic or introverted. It is comedy night in the bullpen while they wait for Montgomery to call their name.
“They’re kind of confused you know, the guys to come in in the middle of the year,” Matt explains of his bullpen mates. “They don’t really know what the rules are and why people are acting the way they are. I typically sit next to Gerck, and we’re kind of paying attention. We’re talking about some of the stuff that’s going on in the games, but it’s pretty loose down there. We know our routine and we go through it, but you know, the other guys,,I don’t know what they think,” he ends with a laugh.
Nate is having fun too, but he understands that they can enjoy themselves in the bullpen, because when their names are called, they deliver. “I think once those new guys who weren’t here last year, once they see how we take care of business, then they don’t really kind of pay attention to what happens before. Certain players need to be focused and quiet the whole time, but that’s the great part about independent ball. They kind of let us do what we want to do and follow our program to get ready. I am interested to see what the other guys think of us though,” he added with a laugh.
There is probably no relationship in sports that requires a higher degree of trust than between a pitcher and a catcher. There needs to be a lot of confidence there, but even in that relationship the two find frivolity.
“I mean, you just bully Dylan (catcher Dylan Kelly) for the first time,” Pobereyko explains deadpan. “Until you’re on the same page, you just got to be mean to him.”
Gercken explains that the relationship worked well because it was established in spring training. “I had a great run with Dylan and it was pretty much easy from the start. He did a great job in spring training, kind of got to know me and what I like to do and there’s not too much to figure out from there.”
To that, Matt explains that it was much easier for Nate to work with the catchers. “Ya, well you’re a two-pitch guy, and I’m a three-pitch guy. Clearly it takes longer for me.”
What is so amusing is that all are considered fair game, even Manager Steve Montgomery.
“(How we got to know each other) was probably just through a bunch of talking s**t to him in the office and a little bit of getting under his skin. I think that’s where it’s at. And I mean, now the guy calls me 25 times a day. So, I think we have a pretty strong relationship.”
“I think he also put up with a lot too because he knew we went out there and did our job. So, that’s where that came from. But notice the relationship is good there,” Gercken added
“He just bought into whole Gerck rivalry, and I think that’s where he started messing with us. He’d say, ‘You know, Gerck is saying this about you.’ He’d tell Gerck I was saying this about him. He just kind of got thrown into what we were doing, and he just kind of hopped in,” Matt added.
Gercken summarizes it best, concluding “It’s been good for all three of us.”
Greater Things Await
While the two had an incredible 2019, both are expecting their numbers to be even better this season. Nate Gercken will be two years removed from an arm injury and he is feeling better than ever. Plus, for only the second time in his career, he will be in the same place two years in a row.
The last time that happened was in 2017-18, when he was in New Jersey (Can-Am League). In 2017, he posted a 2.70 ERA, but came back to record a 2.08 before injuring his arm.
“I was coming out surgery last year, so, I was pretty much just doing the rehab program just to get ready to throw, but this year I can actually lift and work out and get bigger and stronger. I think what I did last year I should be able to do better hopefully this year another year removed from surgery.”
For Matt Pobereyko, last year was the first time where he spent the entire season in one place. A fact that he recognized had a huge impact on his success. “I think the comfort factor, it plays a part that you’re in the same atmosphere with the same guys, you’re doing the same role. It’s not like moving from High-A to Double-A and you are the closer there now you’re throwing the sixth inning. It means everything to have consistent roles, consistent jobs, consistent people.”
This year, the two will have added responsibilities. With long time star player Nate Samson headed to Mexico, is this now their team?
“I will say yes,” Pobereyko quickly pipes in. “I will try to keep it loose, keep guys from bouncing around in there as game time gets closer. You’re in there for so long every day that you can’t be laser focus all day, every day. It’s a grind with the travel, with all the games and stuff like that, that you got to have some sort of atmosphere in there. I try to promote something that is just keeping it loose, keeping guys ready to go.”
For Gercken, this will be a little harder. “I am a lot quieter guy. In how Pobo and I go, we are kind of polar opposites.”
Matt agrees, feeling he may have to work on getting Nate to loosen up more. “I don’t know when was the last time Gerck smiled. I don’t think he’s had a good time in a long time.”
Reaching for the Stars
The Sioux City Explorers fell three games short of their goal last season. After falling in the South Division championship series in 2018, they reached the American Association championship last year, only to lose to the St. Paul Saints.
This year they look to finally silence the critics who wonder if Sioux City can win a championship. If they do, Matt Pobereyko and Nate Gercken will be key reasons why the Explorers finally won it all. The two will definitely close out the backend of this bullpen, so they can tell the doubters to “Shut the front door!” They’ll just be a lot funnier in how they say it.
By Robert Pannier