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Gordo: Alex Reyes' endless misfortune illustrates baseball's uncertainty

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St. Louis Cardinals start day 6 of team workouts in Jupiter

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Alex Reyes poses for a portrait during photo day on the sixth day of team workouts on Saturday, March 19, 2022, at the Cardinals spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

When Cardinals fans last saw Alex Reyes pitch, he was throwing a slider that didn’t slide much to Chris Taylor.

Taylor hammered it for a walk-off two-run homer as the Los Angeles Dodgers knocked off the Cardinals in their one-game playoff.

“I just gave him a huge hug, told him I loved him and gave him another big hug and just told him how special he was as a player and as a teammate and as a person,” fellow Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said at the time. “That’s all you can say in a moment like that. He doesn’t probably want to hear any of it. But it’s all true. You hate to see anyone go through that, but he’s got an incredible future ahead of him. I can’t wait to see what he does next.”

Wainwright, like everyone else, is still waiting. The star-crossed Reyes finds his career on hold once again.

He isn’t sure when he will pitch again. He reported to spring training with a frayed labrum in his pitching shoulder. He got a series of stem cell injections and began working his way back — until his shoulder started barking again.

Reyes, who turns 28 in August, embodies two baseball axioms: Top-rated prospects aren’t a sure thing and pitchers are inherently fragile.

The Cardinals are built on player development and strong pitching. But Reyes provides an unhappy reminder that there are no guarantees in this construction process.

There have been many other indications. Top Cardinals starting pitching prospects Johan Oviedo, Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson have yet to break through, so the rotation is working without much of a safety net.

And serious injuries have been a way of life with Cardinals pitchers, as Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks can also attest.

But nobody has illustrated these truisms more vividly than Reyes.

Back in 2015 he was the sport’s most-prized pitching prospect. At 6-foot-4 he had a projectable frame. His fastball pushed triple-digits.

His 50-game suspension in the minor leagues for marijuana use was just a hiccup. He got back on the fast track and reached the Cardinals in 2016.

He met expectations during his first big league tour, posting a 1.57 earned-run average over 46 innings. He was a bit wild, walking 23 batters, but he struck out 52 with his overpowering stuff.

On Sept. 18, 2016, he blanked the Giants for seven innings in a 3-0 victory at San Francisco. Reyes possessed the brightest possible future in Our National Pastime.

And then he didn’t.

His elbow gave out in 2017, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery. After recovering from that injury, he lasted just four innings during the 2018 season. He tore a tendon attached to the strained latissimus dorsi muscle in the upper right side of his back and needed more surgery.

He his four early-season appearances for the Cardinals in 2019 did not go well. While back at Triple-A Memphis, Reyes let his frustration overwhelm him. He punched the dugout wall with his non-pitching hand after a rough outing for the Redbirds and suffered a broken pinkie.

Then his 2020 campaign was delayed when he tested positive for COVID-19. Reyes eventually joined the Cardinals for their abbreviated pandemic season and he did solid work out of the bullpen.

Last season Reyes finally arrived for real. Given all of his down time, Reyes stayed in the bullpen while trying to rebuild his stamina.

The goal was work him for 80 or so innings while preparing him to start this season, but the Cardinals ended up needing a closer. Reyes seized that role, excelled, and earned an invitation to the All-Star Game.

That crowning achievement was suitable reward for his perseverance.

Ah, but there has been nothing easy about Reyes’ career. After posting a 1.52 ERA with 20 saves during the first half, he faded to a 5.52 ERA and nine saves in the second half.

Reyes fell apart down the stretch. He issued walk after walk and allowed homer after homer. That brought him to that showdown with the Dodgers when misfortune found him again.

The Cardinals and Dodgers were tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt planned on having Giovanny Gallegos pitch the eighth and ninth innings, but Gallegos’ fingernail failed him in the eighth.

Left-hander T.J McFarland pitched the ninth instead and retired the first two batters. But after McFarland walked Cody Bellinger, Shildt had a decision to make.

He preferred a righty to face Taylor, so that ruled out McFarland and Genesis Cabrera. He wanted to save starter Miles Mikolas for extra innings. He had considered starter Jack Flaherty as an option as he returned from injuries, but only to start an inning with nobody on base.

That left Hudson, just back from elbow surgery, the inexperienced Kodi Whitley and Reyes. In the last managerial decision Shildt made for the franchise, he chose Reyes.

Four pitches later Taylor took Reyes yard.

“He’s had a career filled with adversity, and he has just been through the wringer,” Wainwright said after the game. “Each time he’s deal that hand, he’s come back stronger.”

We shall see. As Reyes has proven time and again, there is no sure thing.

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