Even before he was drafted, Florida State’s Mat Nelson had Hall of Famer Johnny Bench's attention

Andre C. Fernandez
Tallahassee Democrat

It was surreal enough for Florida State catcher Mat Nelson two weeks ago when a text popped into his phone saying it was from Johnny Bench.

But sure enough Nelson was about to speak to the legendary Hall of Famer just before winning the award for college baseball’s top catcher.

“We had talked previously at the catching clinic (associated with) the Buster Posey award,” Nelson said. “I was like, ‘wait a second, the Johnny Bench has my phone number and is texting me?’ Oh wow.”

On Monday morning, less than 24 hours after learning he would join the same franchise where Bench would become a catching icon, Nelson would again interact with Bench as he took the time to congratulate him on being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds.

“I was only a second round draft choice and Mat goes in the first? I know he’s really got something going for him then,” said Bench, 73, during a Zoom conference call with reporters.

Bench was drafted with the 36th overall pick in the inaugural MLB amateur draft in 1965 – two years before he’d begin his 17-year career with the Reds.

The Reds took Nelson one spot higher late Sunday night with their Competitive Balance Round A pick (35th overall) which followed the first round.

Matheu Nelson was drafted 35th overall in the 2021 MLB Draft on Sunday by the Cincinnati Reds, becoming the highest FSU catcher taken since Buster Posey in 2008.

Nelson, who was ranked No. 40 overall by MLB Pipeline and No. 50 overall by Baseball America, became the highest-drafted FSU catcher since Posey was chosen by the San Francisco Giants fifth overall in 2008.

Nelson is FSU’s highest pick overall since outfielder DJ Stewart went 25th to the Baltimore Orioles in 2015. He is the ninth Seminole drafted by the Reds and the first since John Sansone in 2016.

Nelson is the third FSU catcher all-time joining Posey and Terry Kennedy, the sixth overall pick in 1977, to be drafted higher than the second round.

The pick had an estimated slot value of $2.10 million. And Nelson, who is expected to sign, said Monday he’s planning to report to the Reds on July 20th.

“I wanted to prove where I could be and where I should go,” said Nelson who went undrafted after the 2020 season. “Everything I’ve done in the offseason has paid off and it really does show everything that I really dedicated myself to.”

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Nelson’s 2021 season in which he earned ACC Player of the Year honors, led the nation in home runs with 23, and became a Golden Spikes Award semifinalist, attracted interest from the Reds for some time, and earned the admiration of Bench.

On Monday, Bench praised Nelson’s defensive tools even more than his powerful bat.

“The way I look at catchers, I always look at their feet and their transfer and that’s something that you worked on considerably during that period of time,” Bench told Nelson. “It wasn’t just your hitting. The feet and the transfer are the keys for any catcher. Our scouting and staff loved everything we saw about you.

“The attitude now is what I’m looking at and that’s exactly what you’re showing me that you want to better and want to play. Congrats, and I look forward to seeing you.”

Cincinnati Reds catcher and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench congratulated FSU's Mat Nelson on being drafted by his former team on Sunday night.

Nelson, who joined the call just before having breakfast with his family in his hometown of Largo, Fla., grew up admiring Bench, and said he likes to emulate his “old-school” style of playing the position.

“I didn’t know he’d be on this call,” Nelson said. “He’s someone I’ve always looked up to and he’s a legend of the game. I love to play gritty, blocking a lot of balls, and just get my pitchers the best opportunities to throw strikes.”

Nelson said he was weighing about 210 pounds before the pandemic, then trimmed down to 185 before putting on added muscle and gaining about 15 pounds heading into the season.

But Nelson, who also learned a lot from another Hall of Famer, the late Roy Halladay, during his high school days at Clearwater Calvary Christian, said working a lot on the mental aspect of the game and taking up a more positive attitude on his approach to playing paid dividends during this past season.

“I got really strong, athletic and was able to start barreling the ball,” Nelson said. “But I really focused on being positive and having an optimistic view on things. The bad is in the past. Focus on the future and whatever happens, happens.”

Nelson was hanging out with family and friends at his home in Largo, watching the first day of the draft wind down when he got the call from his advisor telling him it would be Cincinnati with the second-to-last selection of the evening.

Nelson decided to prank most of those gathered by having his advisor say he’d have to wait until the next day to get picked. Then his name showed up on the screen.

“My advisor texted me and said to get ready,” Nelson said. “I showed the phone to my girlfriend who was sitting next to me and told her to start recording just in case. Everybody started freaking out when my name popped up.

"That was pretty cool.”

Reach Andre Fernandez at afernandez@tallahassee.com or follow him on Twitter @FernandezAndreC.

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