SPRINGFIELD, MO. • As Alex Reyes warmed up in the bullpen here, his fastball hissed but his pitches missed. Now, I’m sure if we could hear singers warm up before a concert, they’d be off-pitch a little before finding their groove. But in baseball, here’s the pitcher in the pen for all to see, and as fellow pitchers and fans fawned, the Cardinals’ No. 1 pitching prospect looked a little off.
But when Reyes took the main stage, well, the kid from New Jersey was like Sinatra with sink. Perfect pitch. Perfect command. It was a show that people will talk about around these parts: an I-saw-him-when performance.
With a return to the St. Louis Cardinals imminent after he gets off the disabled list on May 28, the righty pitched 7 2/3 innings for Class-AA Springfield, tying that franchise’s record with 13 strikeouts.
He walked only three — and two were during the one inning it rained hard. He allowed one hit, but I’m not sure if the guy was even trying to hit it where he hit it. The pitch, 98 miles per hour, was hit on a late swing and down the opposite-field line.
Reyes looks ready, St. Louis.
“Oh yeah, he’s really ridiculously good,” said Cardinals pitcher Tyler Lyons, also here on a rehab assignment. “That was impressive and would’ve played pretty close to that (result) at any level, with the stuff that he was throwing up there today. Mixing it up, changing velocities — it was very impressive to watch today.”
Reyes threw 93 pitches and 60 for strikes on an evening that began as a snippet of bliss: bright sun, clear skies as blue as those ’80s Cardinals uniforms. His first pitch registered 95 mph on the stadium radar. The batter swung and missed. And soon, swung and missed again, this time for strike three.
Perhaps the nastiest pitch of the night, though there was plenty of nast, was the 77 mph curveball that nose-dived through the strike zone, freezing poor Erick Mejia, the following batter.
Early on, everything was firing.
Reyes hit 98 with his fastball, had his change-up fluttering around 86-88, threw what he called a “cutter-slider” — veering away from right-handed hitters — anywhere from 88-91.
Oh, and there’s that curveball that just gyrates.
“I thought it was a very positive outing. I felt like I was very efficient,” said Reyes, who missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. “I think this is the longest outing of my career. So to be able to get that deep into a game is exciting. … Just being able to throw all pitches for strikes. It’s just the rhythm of how my body feels.”
Luckily for the batters on the Springfield Cardinals, no one will remember how they did on Saturday. Because they stunk. Five hits. But they scored a run on a homer — Victor Roache’s 13th of the year — and that was all they needed to win, 1-0, against the Royals’ Class-AA affiliate.
In the second inning the radar on the scoreboard went out temporarily, as one wondered if Reyes broke the gun. Then, when the gun was back on — still hitting 98 — one wondered what would happen if he hit triple-digits (00? Or just stuck on 99?).
He finished the second inning with two strikeouts, too. Same in the third. That included an at-bat against a gent named John Brontsema. This unlucky soul had a 98er come right in on his hands — but it hit some of his bat for a foul ball strike. Later in the at-bat, Ol’ Johnny was frozen on the breaking ball for the strikeout.
One of five strikeouts caught-looking on the evening.
“Anytime I go out on the mound, my goal is to have as much fun as possible,” said Reyes, 23. “You never know how long you’re going to play this game. Being out for a year, I got to experience that a bit. So definitely whenever I get the ball, I try to go out and have some fun.”
In the fourth inning, ominous clouds covered the stadium in the way a retractable roof would. And then ... just so much rain. But while the majority of the 6,000-plus fans watched from the covered concourse, Reyes and the team continued to play. He clearly didn’t have a grip on the baseball. Walk. Wild pitch. Walk again. But he got out of the inning.
The skies returned to blue, then purple, then black. What a night.
How about this stretch: With the final out of the sixth, and then the three outs in the seventh, all four were strikeouts caught-looking. And all four were on curveballs in the 75-77 range.
Of his curveball, Reyes said: “It’s just the way we set up the hitters, being able to get ahead in the count and just having confidence in it — and being able to put it over the plate.”
In that seventh inning, it was as if he was a strikeout robot, doing the same thing over and over, machine-like: 95 fastball, 86 change-up, 75-77 breaking pitch for a strikeout.
And then, to start the eighth, his first fastball hit 98.