When Matt Koperniak stepped into the left-handed batters’ box to face Adam Wainwright, his parents and girlfriend watched from the stands – the only ordinary piece of an otherwise surreal scene for the 25-year-old Cardinals’ farmhand.
Trayce Thompson had just smacked Uncle Charlie’s trademark curveball over the fence at Chase Field in Phoenix to give Great Britain a 1-0 lead over Team USA in the 2023 World Baseball Classic opener.
Thompson returned to the British dugout sporting the team’s royal home run crown and robe as 39,650 stunned Americans settled into their seats.
One could easily forgive Koperniak for being consumed by the moment.
Surely Wainwright’s mid-80’s fastball that cruised belt-high would look like a beach ball, too enticing not to unleash an aggressive swing.
Surely the Cardinals’ minor league player of the month last August was itching to make a statement against the organizations’ beloved big-league ace with nearly 200 Major League wins.
Surely the London-born undrafted free agent from Division-III Trinity College accustomed to playing for a smattering of fans would be disoriented by the big stage.
Surely not Matt Koperniak.
Patient, relaxed, and disciplined – he never took the bat off his shoulder. Wainwright nibbed with the fastball up, but just outside the strike zone, and Koperniak walked on five pitches.
“That was awesome, I don’t know if this is his last year or not, but it was a crazy experience and definitely something I will remember for life,” Koperniak said prior to a Double-A game in Springfield in April.
“I never played in front of that many people – (the U.S. team) definitely had the edge on us with those guys being a little bit more experienced and being in that atmosphere, but we played a good game against them. It was just cool to be out there in front of all those people.”
“That kind of tells him you’re not that far away if you can play under than kind of pressure and atmosphere,” Springfield manager Jose Leger said.
Koperniak returned to Springfield this spring and he’s picked up a scorching bat right where he left it.
The Cards’ lefty is slashing .325/.394/.447 with four homers and 14 RBI’s in 29 games. His batting average leads Springfield (13-17) and is good for fifth in the Texas League though May 11.
Koperniak finished 2022 red hot; he posted a .371 average with six home runs, five doubles and two triples in August – including the August 9 game against Amarillo when he hit for the cycle, the first Springfield player to accomplish the feat since 2011.
Koperniak had a short stint in Triple-A before joining Great Britain in Germany for the WBC qualifying tournament in September.
“Just trying to pick up where I left off last year, getting good weather. Just trying to hit the ball, hit the ball hard, keep things going. I feel a little bit more relaxed being up here for the second year,” he said.
Leger recognizes Koperniak’s comfort at the plate, and typically slots him into the heart of the Cardinals’ lineup.
“He’s got the ability to make contact, he’s a more mature hitter with a better knowledge of the strike zone,” he said.
Team USA beat Great Britain 6-2 in the opening game, but the British defeated Colombia in pool play and secured an automatic spot in the 2026 World Baseball Classic. Fans in the U.K. will also see the Cardinals and Cubs play a series in London in June.
“(The WBC) put Great Britain on the map for baseball,” Koperniak said.
“Our coach right from the beginning said, ‘You guys are already winning by just being in this tournament’. They are definitely trying to grow the game there, so for kids to be able to see us play – I think it’s definitely going to help.”
The tournament offers minor league players like Koperniak an unparalleled opportunity.
“It’s a great experience for the players. The whole world is watching – maybe if you play for an organization, you’re getting all 30 organizations to look at you, and maybe other teams from overseas. Let’s not kid ourselves, it might work out that you go play in Japan or in Mexico and make good money too,” Leger said.