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Cardinals rookie pitcher Alex Reyes takes winding path to big stage

SAN FRANCISCO -- St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jordan Walden could throw a baseball 100 mph by the time he was 16 years old, causing a frenzy of interest among scouts in his native Texas. Walden's precociousness made him the No. 1 prospect in his area, higher in the rankings even than a rangy high-school lefty down the road in Dallas named Clayton Kershaw.

But there are other, slower paths to becoming a flame-throwing prodigy. Alex Reyes took that one.

By his senior year at Elizabeth High in New Jersey, Reyes had to strain to throw 87 mph. He was 5-foot-11 and about 165 pounds. Even now, he is officially listed at 6-3 and 175 pounds, which sells him short by about an inch and 70 pounds. That was how big he was after he signed his pro contract and it won't be updated until he reports to his first big league camp. He was 17 at the time.

"I just hit a growth spurt," Reyes said.

While most Dominican baseball players want nothing more than to play well enough to reach America, Reyes had to go back to the Dominican to learn to play well.

In 2010, Reyes moved from New Jersey to his parents' home country, the Dominican Republic, to train for a professional baseball career. He split time living with each of his grandmothers. Toward the end of that year, when he tried out for teams, the Cardinals clocked him throwing 91-94 mph. Not for another two years would he throw 100. By then, he was in Class A baseball and, suddenly, he was getting all sorts of attention. There is something magnetic about triple digits.

It's hard to know whether to credit the Cardinals for signing him off his less-than-overwhelming tryouts, or to marvel at their luck that he grew, literally, into one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in professional baseball. Both Reyes and the Cardinals were able to evade the draft system by agreeing to a $950,000 deal.

"We were very excited about getting this done, as there were other teams on him," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak recalled.

The Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals were among them.

Some of it was being in the right place at the right time. Reyes' grandmothers live in the Dominican town of San Cristobal. The mayor of that town, former major league outfielder Raul Mondesi, had a son who was being touted to major league teams by a local scout, or buscon. Raul Mondesi Jr. is now a shortstop for the Royals. Reyes worked out with Mondesi and hit the tryout circuit with the buscon, known by one name, Valera.

Cardinals scout Rodny Jimenez had gotten wind of Reyes' "projectable breaking ball and killer changeup," in the words of Mozeliak. The Cardinals attended Reyes' workout in the town of Palenque and then invited him for a private workout at their academy in the capital, Santo Domingo.

"His delivery was better and, although raw, the athleticism was obvious," Mozeliak said.

The Cardinals had to wait six months to sign Reyes, because an MLB rule bars prospects who leave the U.S. to become free agents from signing for one calendar year. That was an anxious time for the Cardinals, who had to somehow shield Reyes from the approaches of other teams.

After that, it was all up to him. His career was stalled early this season as he served a 50-game suspension for violating minor-league rules against marijuana use, but he otherwise moved relatively seamlessly through the minor leagues.

"You enter minor-league baseball and it's a whole different thing than what you expected," Reyes said. "The only advantage I had over the other kids from the Dominican is I knew English, so I had that in common with the coaches and fellow teammates. Other than that, you sign a professional contract and you get thrown in the fire. It helped me just because I had been away from home so long, just like you do in the season."

Throwing 100 mph made Reyes a high-ceiling prospect. Throwing 88 mph made him a viable option for the Cardinals this season. He began throwing his changeup routinely at the end of the 2014 season at Class A Peoria. He threw it all through 2015 at three different levels, over which he had a 2.49 ERA combined and 151 strikeouts in 101⅓ innings. Carson Kelly, his catcher at various stops in the minors, credits the changeup for making his fastball appear even more explosive.

By the middle of this season, Baseball America ranked Reyes the No. 2 prospect in baseball.

He also turned 22 less than three weeks ago and the Cardinals are trusting him in games they can't afford to lose, just as they are trusting fellow rookie Luke Weaver in those games. Weaver failed to get out of the third inning Friday night as the Cardinals lost an important game in San Francisco. Reyes is the next rookie up in defense of the Cardinals' eroding chances.

Reyes is 2-1 with a 1.29 ERA in 28 innings. He has 34 strikeouts and 16 walks. Sunday afternoon at AT&T Park will be the biggest stage of his young life. Manager Mike Matheny says he has no hesitation throwing him out there.

"Luke's been impressive. Alex has been very impressive. Just let them go out and be young players and, hopefully, some of that excitement they have continues to be infectious throughout the clubhouse," Matheny said.

When in doubt, go with talent.