Surprise Star

Cardinals' Reifer shows amazing stuff in pro debut

In 1990, the California Angels used their sixth-round draft pick on a catcher out of UC Riverside. The player went on to have a successful major league career, but it wasn't spent crouching behind the plate. Troy Percival has been one of the best closers of his generation and the Cardinals are hoping another UC Riverside draftee can follow in his footsteps.

Adam Reifer
Righthander Adam Reifer wouldn't mind either. He grew up rooting for the Angels, and Percival is one of his favorite pitchers.

"I get to play catch with him sometimes in the offseason," Reifer said. "It's cool because I get to pick his mind a little bit. He hooked me up with my agent and has been an excellent resource for me because I'm a closer and what not. It's kind of awesome."

The 6-foot-2 righthander was the Cardinals' 11th-round pick in the 2007 draft. Reifer has a first-round arm, but slipped on draft day after arm troubles limited him to just seven innings during his junior year.

Reifer spent last year and the first part of this season rehabbing from a triceps tendon avulsion. Now healthy, the 11th-round pick is looking like a steal, as Reifer was an all-star closer for short-season Batavia. Reifer recorded 22 saves and led the league with 32 appearances. Over 30 innings, he gave up 18 hits, walked 15, struck out 41 and posted a 2.97 ERA, helping the Muckdogs win the New York-Penn League championship series.

"He's done a great job for me and he's the one guy on the whole team that, if we had lost him, he wouldn't have been replaceable," Muckdogs manager Mark DeJohn said. "It's not that somebody couldn't have come in and gotten saves, it's just that they couldn't have come in and been as dominant as he's been. Over the four years I've been here, he's obviously the best closer we've had."

He's Come A Long Way

Four years ago, this all would have been hard to imagine.

Reifer was not drafted out of high school and attended UC Riverside as a recruited walk-on. Andrew Checketts, who was Riverside's pitching coach at the time but is now part of George Horton's staff at Oregon, said Reifer came to school with one usable pitch: a mid-to-upper-80s fastball. As a Highlander, Reifer refined his slider, learned a changeup and tinkered with a splitter. But it was improved conditioning that really made the difference and put him on the map as a prospect. On a more structured weightlifting program, Reifer added 25 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame, and the growth greatly improved his fastball velocity.

"He's a tremendous athlete with a real big arm, a real fast arm," Checketts said. "As he got stronger physically, it started flying out of his hand."

Now, Reifer's arsenal includes a big-time fastball, a 90-93 mph slider with tilt that he admits is still a work in progress, and a changeup he mixes in occasionally. But the fastball, which sits in the 95-97 mph range and touches 99, is his bread and butter.

"I think he's got a chance to throw harder than that too," said Checketts, who predicted that triple digits could be in Reifer's future. "He can stand on home plate and throw the ball out of the ballpark."The Cardinals have been perhaps the most active team in transitioning relievers into starters, but Reifer said he would like to stay in the bullpen.

"They know my personality and I fit that closer personality mold," Reifer said. "I come out there intense. I'm on fire and I'm ready to give it my all for that inning."

DeJohn agrees.

"He's a cocky kid and he believes in himself," DeJohn said. "But, hey—if you get it up there to 96 and you can touch 98, you should be cocky. He's got that closer's mentality in that he's not going to give in and he thinks he can do it. He doesn't get scared."

Overconfidence in his ability may have gotten the best of Reifer early in the season.

"The biggest thing is being mentally tough the entire season," he said. "That was the hardest part because I started out by ripping through my first two outings and I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to tear up this New York-Penn League.' But then the next couple outings were rough—it's like the baseball gods slapped me in the face. So, I learned to take each outing as a new day and just not try to think about anything. Basically every player I play, I grow a hatred toward them. I just hate them. No one's going to take me down, I have to go out there and destroy them."Reifer said, for the first time in years, his arm has been pain-free. He credits the pleasant surprise to refined mechanics.

"I think our only concern was getting him healthy," Cardinals minor league pitching coordinator Dyar Miller said. "Once he was healthy, he's done quite well. He's been one of the bright spots in our organization, but I think that was one of the hardest hurdles he had to get over, because he's had arm problems in the past. I never got hurt as a pitcher but, from what I understand, it's something that always sticks in the back of a guy's mind. It's just something that lingers in their mind . . . They're afraid to throw through it, but I think he's finally made up his mind and gotten over that hump"

Reifer said coaches showed him videos of dominating power pitchers like Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan and conducted drills to help him accelerate his time to the plate, get better hip rotation, stop stepping across his body and keep his arm more relaxed during his delivery.

"My arm feels great now," Reifer said. "I feel like I can throw every day."

The Cardinals are playing it safe with Reifer and have told him to take it easy this winter. For Reifer, spring can't come soon enough.

"I feel like I'm behind my draft class and I just want to keep pitching and getting better," Reifer said. "I really wanted to keep playing. I was like, 'Send me to Mexico, send me to Venezuela, I don't care, I just want to keep playing.' But I don't really care as long as I'm playing ball and I know I'll get a good chance next year."

Reifer hopes to improve his fastball command and the consistency of his slider and mechanics.

"If I do that," he said, "I don't think anyone could hit me."