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First Start: The Tough Alex Reyes Was Wild, Weary, but Willing

In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised to see Alex Reyes last only four innings through a laborious start at Miller Park in Milwaukee. Having to deal with an elbow injury, surgical repair, and a lengthy recovery time, Reyes hadn’t faced major-league hitters in live action in 609 days.

In his four minor-league rehab starts, Reyes faced little competition and made easy-breezy work of junior varsity hitters.  Reyes wasn’t tested, challenged or pushed. If Reyes had to work out of any kind of jam in those assignments, the difficulty occurred in the parking lot or streets around the ballpark. If he had any anxiety during his pop-up starts in the minors, it probably had to do with a calorie-rich, cholesterol-soaked post-game spread.

It’s one thing to stare in at Donnie Dewees, the leadoff man for the Double A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, and strike him out three times in a game. Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Travis Shaw and the other hitters in the Milwaukee lineup would offer more resistance and a savvy awareness of how to approach Reyes. The Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect is immensely talented, but he’s still only 23, and he has a history of command issues. If the past is still applicable, Reyes on his wilder days throws many pitches, increases his degree of difficulty by walking hitters, and empties his fuel tank early. In time Reyes will likely become more efficient, but he isn’t there yet.

The Brewers knew this, so they made Reyes work, made him sweat, made him pitch his way into trouble, and made him spend too many pitches (73) to get 12 outs. In his four innings Reyes faced 15 Brewers; seven of the 15 plate appearances lasted at least five pitches and five went as deep as eight pitches. Six Brewers walked into the box in the second inning, loaded the bases, and made Reyes pay a high price — 28 pitches — for three outs.

And in the the third inning Reyes’ velocity drop became more visible and concerning.

Here’s the average miles per hour for Reyes’ four-seam fastball and slider, in each of his four innings. And I’ll abbreviate with FB for fastball and SL for slider.

1st Inning:    96.5 mph FB … 86.8 mph SL

2nd Inning:  95.2 mph FB …  85.2 mph SL

3rd Inning:    94.2 mph FB … 83.9  mph SL

4th Inning:    93.7 mph FB … 83.9  mph * SL

* Reyes threw only two sliders in the fourth.

Milwaukee hitters averaged 4.8 pitches per plate appearance against Reyes; the National League average for pitches per PA when facing a starting pitcher this season is 3.9.

Here’s what you have to love about his four-inning start: the Brewers pushed Reyes to a level of full exertion, but could not crack him. Reyes was tough as hell, wouldn’t budge, and did not allow a run.

And think about this … in the 28-pitch second inning: the Brewers reached base on a single, two walks, and one hit-by-pitch. With Brewers on first and second and no outs, Reyes cooled the threat by inducing a double-play grounder. Then, with Shaw having moved to third on the double play,  Reyes walked Eric Sogard, had Sogard steal second base, and hit Erik Kratz with a pitch to load the bases. A fly-ball out ended the inning.

No, the Brewers couldn’t break Reyes. They tired him out, absolutely. But even as the right-hander’s velocity continued to fall, and with a look of discomfort on his face, Reyes retired six of the final seven hitters he confronted … including the final five.

By that late point the Brewers carrying the bats had an obvious advantage in the matchup with a weary Reyes. He seemed vulnerable, and the Brewers had a shot to get to him … and still … Reyes would not yield. Reyes may have lacked control, and he was running low on energy.  But he got through the wildness and weariness with an abundance of competitiveness.

Reyes’ resolve was admirable, and that’s why we salute him for it.

But based on Thursday’s news from the Cardinals, Reyes pushed too hard. And when manager Mike Matheny, pitching coach Mike Maddux and trainer Adam Olsen visiting the mound in the fourth inning to check on the wincing Reyes, I wonder if the uniformed supervisors now second-guess their decision to let a gem of the organization stay in the game to retire two more hitters and throw three 95 mph fastballs in completing the inning.

The Cardinals on Thursday afternoon placed Reyes on the 10-day DL with a strained right lat. The hope was that this would be a minor setback, costing Reyes no more than a couple of starts. But hope was erased when GM Michael Girsch gave an update before the Cards-Pirates game at Busch Stadium.

“Alex Reyes has a significant lat strain,” Girsch said. “It is not going to be a couple starts. It’s going to be more than a few starts. We don’t have all the information yet so we don’t know beyond that how long it’s going to be. But it is not a minor injury and we’re gathering more information.”

Reyes evidently made the call to finish the fourth.

“Our staff went out to visit the mound because his velocity was down,” Girsch said. “Alex shook his head that he was fine and stayed in the game. Postgame, when the adrenaline went away, he was stiff, he was sore, sore enough that we knew we were going to DL him and he’d miss at least one start … but when he went to the doctor this morning they termed it a significant strain.”

Reyes didn’t want to come out of that game Wednesday. Once he returned, he wanted to stay. Reyes insisted he could have gone another inning. He wanted to keep going. Hurting and injured but  determined, he was willing to stand and fight. And now that Reyes will be down for a while, right back to the DL where he’d been living for so long, we just don’t know when to expect to see him stand on the mound to fight again.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: McLaughlin Wishes Reyes’s Cardinals Return Wasn’t Limited to Facebook Broadcast