By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
MILWAUKEE — The dawn of a new baseball season seemed to be met in the Cardinals clubhouse with a sense of business as usual. Players who are committed to routine were loath to admit to anything special they do on the season’s first day or any suggestion that Thursday’s matchup with the Brewers was much out of the ordinary.
Still, despite those protestations, it was impossible to miss the excited energy radiating out of the furthest corner of the clubhouse from the main entrance. That corner is where Alex Reyes’s locker was situated, and the Cardinals right hander seems beyond eager to get started.
“It’s been a goal for me since day one, since I signed a contract with the Cardinals in the minors, to be up on this big league club and show who I am and be a part of this club for a long time,” Reyes said.
The quotes perhaps don’t do Reyes justice, because they don’t convey the endless grin that was affixed to his face throughout the duration of the conversation. It was here, at Miller Park, that his 2018 return from a 2017 Tommy John surgery came to a screeching halt. Following only four innings of alarmingly descending velocity, Reyes was pulled from the game and, soon after, diagnosed with a tear in a muscle connecting his chest and shoulder that would terminate a second consecutive year far too soon.
As reporters left Miller Park on that day in May, there was a lingering feeling that something serious was wrong. Reyes acknowledged that his return to this ballpark brought back some of those memories.
“It definitely brings back the memories of the injury and all that,” he said. “But once I got here I really thought about the future, and expecting to pitch today or whenever it is my name gets called.”
“I’m excited to go back out there on the mound and give these hitters what I’ve got.”
At least twice while talking to reporters, Reyes mentioned pitching “today” before quickly correcting himself and conceding that he’ll be available any time Cardinals manager Mike Shildt calls for him. Reyes played the politics of the moment well, but his desire was unmistakable – he wants the ball as soon as he can get it.
Reyes’s role will be one of the more interesting variables to track in a seemingly-dynamic St. Louis bullpen. With only one left-hander – Andrew Miller – on the opening day roster, Shildt and his staff will have to be judicious in deciding how to handle Milwaukee’s lefty sluggers. Second baseman Mike Moustakas and third baseman Travis Shaw bat left-handed, and catcher Yasmani Grandal is a switch hitter.
Then, of course, comes the reigning National League Most Valuable Player; Christian Yelich also swings from the south side.
With his background as a starter and his wide repertoire of pitches, Reyes makes for an intriguing candidate as a lefty neutralizer. He credited injured Cardinal Carlos Martínez with encouraging him to keep all of his pitches sharp during spring, even as it became clear he was likely to be utilized in a bullpen role.
“As a pitcher coming out of the bullpen, when you have weapons that hitters usually see from a starter, it’s exciting to be able to bring that,” Reyes said.
“As a starter I had to get lefties and righties out. For me I don’t really feel a difference if a hitter’s in the left handed batter’s box or the right handed batter’s box. I feel comfortable in getting both out.”
Shildt concurred with Reyes’s self-assessment, saying he “[doesn’t] think there’s any question” that the righty could be utilized in that fashion. “He’s got the pitches being a former starter,” Shildt said. “You’ve got [Jordan] Hicks and you’ve got John Gant, same deal with weapons and success against some of these guys from the left side.”
Still, Hicks sits as the Cardinals de facto closer and Gant, though not being held back for a long-relief role, is a more natural fit for that position. The lack of certainty around Reyes’s availability for multiple innings or on consecutive days could make him an appealing candidate for those important outs as well, though his manager downplayed worries on that front.
“The most important part is the fact that he’s been able to [pitch multiple innings] and he’s been able to recover from it, and we know he’s got the pitches that are going to play, so I’m not overly concerned about it,” Shildt said.
Reyes concurred, saying. “I like throwing multiple innings. That’s something I’d like to do. But whatever Shildty needs or whatever this club needs, that’s what I’m excited to do. And if it’s one inning, go out there for one inning and if it’s multiple go out there and try to finish strong.”
In time, it’s likely that Reyes will end up as part of the Cardinals’ rotation. For today, he’s thrilled simply to be back in the big leagues and be able to cross a goal off of a list that has been cruelly delayed in its completion.
“You go through a lot of ups and downs,” Reyes said, “and in my career I’ve unfortunately been hit with a few of them. It’s a learning process and understanding that there are things that you can’t control and those are things that happen in baseball.”
“Last year it definitely hurt. It doesn’t take anything away from that, but I’m excited to be here, so it’s definitely one of the highest highs.”
“It’s definitely a different feeling and it’s exciting just to be in this clubhouse. I know I’ve said that a lot, but that’s really me.”
Even if he hadn’t said it a lot, it would be impossible to miss.
It’s painted on Alex Reyes’s face.
He wants the ball, and he’s finally ready to take it.