By Jack Etkin
It was his third start for the Cincinnati Reds this season and just his 19th in the big leagues for pitcher Greg Reynolds, whose professional career began seven years ago with promise, riches and a high-profile passage from college.
Then came a succession of arm injuries -- one downright bizarre, involving a muscle detached from his scapula -- that caused Reynolds to lose valuable development time and drift into the minor league backwaters. Along the way, he had the good fortune to cross paths last year in spring training with Greg Maddux and his brother, Mike, and to learn from both.
So here Reynolds was, on the night of Aug. 31, opposing the Colorado Rockies, who had drafted him second overall in 2006. Reynolds, 28, had pitched before at Coors Field, but not particularly well and never as a visiting player.
"I just tried not to even let the coming back to Coors Field thing factor in," said Reynolds, who held the Rockies to three runs in a career-high eight innings, winning 8-3.
Seen amid the blur of box scores, the game followed a familiar outline. The Reds won again, their sights set on October, and the Rockies lost once more, their season shipwrecked months earlier.
To Reynolds, though, the game was monumental, maybe his last chance to show the Reds he could contribute. He threw a fastball that was mostly 88-89 mph, a cutter, curveball and changeup. He didn't issue any walks and had five strikeouts. The Reds gave Reynolds a three-run lead in the 3rd and a five-run margin in the 5th. He allowed just one run and five hits through seven innings and might have thrown a complete game, had he not given up a two-run homer to Corey Dickerson in the 8th. Reynolds finished with 104 pitches, 72 of them strikes.
"He looked like he knew how to pitch," said Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against Reynolds. "It wasn't overwhelming stuff, but he pitched well. His cutter was his best pitch to me. That's what he struck me out on twice, but he gave me some pitches to hit, too. I just didn't hit them. But there's a lot of guys he didn't give pitches to hit. All night, he just painted them up."
Reynolds' debut with the Reds had come in a July 23 doubleheader at San Francisco. The Reds had needed a starter for the second game and brought up Reynolds, who'd been flourishing at Triple A. Reynolds was brought up again a month later, when Reds starter Tony Cingrani suffered a back strain, for a start at Milwaukee. That led to Reynolds' triumphant return to Coors Field, where he said he'd "learned what not to do" while putting up an 8.68 ERA in 18 games with the Rockies.
"To get an opportunity to be back in the big leagues, this meant so much more, because I had to fight about as hard as I could fight to get through all the s**t that I went through," Reynolds said. "Being called up before, it was a little bit handed to me. Being a first-rounder, you're always going to get the first look. You get more opportunities being a first-rounder."
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The Rockies drafted Reynolds out of Stanford in 2006, taking him right after Kansas City chose pitcher Luke Hochevar with the top pick in that draft, and just ahead of third baseman Evan Longoria, whom Tampa Bay selected. Reynolds received $3.25 million, a record signing bonus for the Rockies at the time, and began his professional career at the Rockies' high Class A club in Modesto, Calif., where he put up a 3.33 ERA in 11 starts. He moved up to Double A Tulsa in 2007, where he posted a 1.42 ERA in eight starts, with nine walks and 35 strikeouts. He was moving and moving fast -- only to stall and, it turned out, wait six years to have the wind at his back again.
Reynolds underwent arthroscopic surgery to clean up his shoulder but came back to be the 2008 Opening Day starter at Triple A Colorado Springs. After posting a 4.86 ERA in seven starts there, Reynolds, somewhat to his surprise, was promoted to the Rockies, taking the spot in the rotation of Mark Redman, a fading 34-year-old left-hander. After going 2-6 with a 6.71 ERA in 11 starts, the Rockies optioned Reynolds to Triple A on July 5. They recalled him two months later, and he pitched in three September games, two starts, finishing the season with an 8.13 ERA.
General manager Dan O'Dowd admitted that Reynolds had been rushed when the Rockies brought him to the big leagues in May.
"I felt fine, but I was only six or seven months out of surgery when they called me up," Reynolds said. "It was a tough spot, because as a competitor, you go out there and think you can get the job done. I had confidence that way, but the reality was, I wasn't sharp. My command wasn't there. My velocity wasn't there."
Reynolds threw extensively that offseason and went into spring training in 2009 without any problems, his shoulder feeling great, his confidence high. About two weeks before camp broke, Reynolds felt pain beneath his right scapula. He went ahead and made another Opening Day start for Colorado Springs, but he left in the 5th inning and didn't throw another pitch in a game the rest of the season.
"That was the most frustrating time, because we couldn't even diagnose the problem," Reynolds said. "We saw so many doctors and so many specialists, and they were all shaking their head. The MRI, all the scans came up clean. There was no structural problem in there. They could see inflammation, and they knew the area where it was. But they could never diagnose the problem."
As a last resort, Reynolds went to see Dr. W. Ben Kibler, a scapula specialist in Lexington, Ky. On Oct. 27, 2009, Kibler performed exploratory surgery on Reynolds, removing scar tissue from underneath his right scapula. A small portion of his rhomboid muscle had atrophied, so Kibler detached the muscle from the scapula and reattached it in a slightly different spot.
"Right when I woke up," Reynolds recalled, "he said, 'Found the problem. It was simpler than we thought. Your rhomboid wouldn't have allowed you to throw, if I didn't do this procedure.'"
Reynolds went to big-league camp in 2010 upbeat, confident and, best of all, healthy. That changed during his second throwing session, when he was struck with a line drive just above his right elbow. An inch lower, and the joint might have been shattered. Instead, Reynolds suffered a nasty bruise and a bone chip, fortunately not in an area that would affect his ability to pitch. But he was sidelined three weeks, meaning he'd be starting spring training again, more or less, once cleared to pitch.
He began his season May 8 and made two successful starts for Modesto. After moving up to Tulsa and making a start, Reynolds missed nearly a month due to back and elbow soreness. He eventually made 17 starts for Tulsa with a 5.22 ERA. He said his elbow bothered him the entire season, and "my stuff wasn't very good."
Reynolds' final year in the Rockies organization was 2011, which he spent healthy and shuttling between Triple A and the majors. Reynolds had four stints with the Rockies that season, mostly in September and mostly in relief outings, posting a 6.19 ERA in 13 games, three starts. They traded him to the Texas Rangers in the offseason for minor leaguer Chad Tracy, son of Rockies manager Jim Tracy.
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The following spring, Reynolds went to big league camp with the Rangers. Mike Maddux was the Texas pitching coach, and Greg Maddux was in camp, helping out. Reynolds said they gave him a plan, a blueprint for how and when to use all his pitches.
"The biggest thing Greg Maddux taught me was that it's all about what the hitter just saw," Reynolds said. "And if you can throw a couple different pitches off of what the hitter just saw, you can do well. It surprised me, how simple he kept everything ...
"If you missed high with a fastball, it might not be a bad time to throw a curveball right off the same plane. If you missed in with a sinking fastball, not a bad time to throw a cutter right off of that."
Reynolds said Mike Maddux stressed the need to commit to every pitch; whether it was the right or wrong pitch was far less important than throwing it with complete conviction.
"That was the start of it," Reynolds said. "That was kind of the start of, 'OK, I think I can learn how to pitch like this.' It just gave me a little confidence, knowing kind of what I was doing out there. Rather than kind of second-guessing myself a little bit, I started getting a feel for all four pitches and when to use them."
During that 2011 season, Reynolds threw 163 innings, by far his single-season high, for Triple A Round Rock. He was still pitching in the Pacific Coast League, where hitters typically thrive and pitchers endure, going 11-9 with a 5.30 ERA.
"The numbers weren't there, but I made strides as a pitcher," Reynolds said. "There's flashes. There's games where I felt like I was in complete control, and there's games where I would just make stupid mistakes."
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After the 2012 season, the Reds, coming off a 97-win season and looking to add some pitching depth, signed Reynolds as a minor league free agent.
"There weren't that many offers out there," Reynolds said. "It was like, 'I might be out of this game pretty quick.' I think being up against the wall a little bit, pitching with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, trying to just prove to myself that I can actually do this and do it well -- I think I responded really well to that."
Reynolds began the season at Triple A Louisville, in the far more pitcher-friendly International League. He was 10-2 with a 2.54 ERA when the Reds brought him up to pitch in that July 23 doubleheader, his first appearance in the majors since 2011. On Aug. 31, in his return to Coors, he got his first victory in the big leagues in more than two years.
With the Reds in a pennant race and rosters expanded, Reynolds has no idea when, or even if, he'll pitch this month. He hasn't pitched since that start at Coors Field, but that's all right, because Reynolds is on a team savoring September, charging towards October.
"I haven't been in a meaningful game in a long, long time, as far as the team," Reynolds said. "Never played on a winning team in the minor leagues. So it's been a long time since I've felt I'm doing this for the team, for the playoffs, rather than just my career to get myself back on track. So that's fun. It's a good thing to be a part of."
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Jack Etkin has covered baseball since 1981 for the Kansas City Star, the Rocky Mountain News and, these days, for The Sports Xchange and Baseball America.