Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hot Rod Rearick

(published in the September/October issue of Pooler Magazine)

Before the 2011 baseball season began, Chris Rearick’s name was not on any lists of the top prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization, and why should it have been?  After all, the Pooler native wasn’t drafted until the 41st round last year – yes, there are that many rounds in a Major League Baseball draft.  Guys drafted that late are usually projected as no more than minor league roster-filler, players to provide some competition for those considered to be genuine major league prospects.  But after an All-Star season for the class A Bowling Green Hot Rods, Rearick proved he is much more than a roster spot.  Indeed, he was the best closer in the entire Midwest League.

“I had never been a closer before this year.  I was always a starting pitcher,” Rearick told me before his team practiced prior to a road game with the Great Lakes Loons.  “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a closer when they talked to me about becoming one, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way.”  You couldn’t tell that by the way he has pitched this year: as of the end of August, a 7-2 won-loss record with 19 saves, a miniscule 1.38 earned run average (ERA), and 86 strikeouts in 78 innings pitched.  Unsurprisingly, Rearick was just named to the Midwest League’s 2011 All-Star team.  Somewhat surprisingly, the left-hander showed just as much talent with a much bigger ball when he was growing up near the old Pooler Recreation Park.

“I was a very good bowler from the time I was a teenager,” Rearick says of his 194 average when he was bowling in a junior league as a 15-year-old.  Like a lot of boys, Rearick also played virtually every other sport growing up, and he played basketball and football, in addition to baseball, through high school at Savannah Christian.  Despite having corrective surgery on both ankles after his sophomore season, Rearick was a star, even if it was more so on the diamond than on the gridiron and the court.  “I liked football and basketball, but I stuck with baseball because I was better at it than the other sports.  I knew I had a better chance of playing college baseball.”

In January of 2006, just before his final high school baseball season, Rearick signed to do just that at Berry College.  The school nestled in the mountains of Northwest Georgia is small when it comes to student numbers, but huge when it comes to land – at more than 26,000 acres, it is the largest college campus in the world.  “I liked Berry because it was so big, and growing up loving the outdoors, the campus was very appealing.  I also wanted to play baseball for them because I knew their pitching coach, Josh Hopper, and thought he could help me.”

His college career started slowly, but by his junior year, Rearick was one of the Vikings’ top pitchers, going 9-2 in 16 games with a 3.58 ERA.  But Rearick would leave Berry after that season in order to help his chances of becoming a pro.  Berry competed in the NAIA, the small college equivalent of college sports’ major governing body, the NCAA.  Even though Berry was attempting to move up to the NCAA, “a scout told me that major league teams don’t generally look at (lower division) college players when it comes time for the draft,” which is why Rearick transferred to North Georgia College.

The Dahlonega school’s official name is actually a mouth-filling North Georgia College and State University.  All Rearick cared about was that the Saints’ baseball team competed in NCAA Division Two – the same as Savannah’s Armstrong Atlantic State University; Rearick competed against AASU that season since both schools are members of the Peach Belt Conference.  If Rearick’s goal for his final college season was to get the attention of scouts, mission accomplished.  He was the conference’s pitcher of the year with a 9-2 record, a 3.20 ERA, and 99 strikeouts in 98 and one-third innings pitched.

Despite the impressive numbers, major league scouts tend to look more for raw talent that can be developed in the minor leagues, and as draft day in June 2010 dragged on, Rearick grew despondent – his phone wasn’t ringing.  “The draft went on and on, and some of my friends started getting drafted in the later rounds, so I was starting to resign myself that I wouldn’t be drafted.  That’s when Tampa called.” 

The Tampa Bay Rays boast one of the finest collections of young pitching talent, particularly starting pitching, in the major leagues, and that’s why Chris was excited to be drafted by them.  “Unlike some teams, Tampa had a reputation of developing young pitchers through the minor leagues and giving them a legitimate chance at the major league level, rather than simply trading for established major league pitchers,” Rearick says.  As with most young pitchers, Rearick began at a low rung of the minor league ladder – advanced-Rookie League ball in tiny Princeton, West Virginia.

His first professional season could have been better.  A 3-1 won-loss record was belied by a somewhat high 4.72 ERA and a lot of hits allowed in 40 innings pitched.  “It was tough to adjust to pitching to teams where every guy on the opposing team was a professional, as opposed to college ball where only a couple of guys on each team had any chance of playing professionally.”  After trying to speed up his delivery in spring training prior to the 2011 season, Rearick says he made some simple adjustments suggested by Bowling Green pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein, and as the coach attests, he has been almost untouchable ever since.

 “He made it look easy,” Lichtenstein said in a recent interview with the Bowling Green Daily News. “It got to the point where we thought, ‘That was fun to watch. He deserves to pitch in meaningful innings now.’ “The ninth inning is not for everybody. To his credit, he has taken it and run with it and never looked back.”  Rearick also attributes some of this year’s success, including the lowest ERA and the highest strikeout-rate of his career, to the development of his favorite pitch.  “I love throwing my slider, but a slider is a pitch that sometimes takes your entire life to learn.  You just have to keep working on it every day to have a good one.”

Rearick is diplomatic when it comes to the $64 question for pitchers; the preference between starting and closing.  “I liked starting, but I really have adapted to being the guy that’s ready to come in every night or every other night and finish a game.  There is some pressure, sure, but I enjoy that kind of pressure, so I will do whatever (the Rays’ organization) wants me to.”  One thing Rearick will close on very soon is his personal life; on September 30th Chris is marrying Courtney Webber, whom he met while at Berry College.  Webber was also an athlete, a star on the Lady Vikings’ soccer team, and the two will get married in Courtney’s home town of Houston, Texas.

If baseball doesn’t work out, there are always other options for Rearick’s future.  “I could try bowling again,” he says with a laugh, reminding slightly older baseball fans of former Atlanta Brave John Burkett, another pitcher known for his talent on the lanes.  Indeed, Chris knows the odds are still stacked somewhat against him.  He turns 24 in December, and since most players in low-Class A ball are 21 or younger, some scouts will discount Rearick’s numbers. 

But one would think it would be very difficult for the Rays’ organization to completely ignore the best season by far of any relief pitcher in the Midwest League.  Chris also knows he has an advantage in being a southpaw.  “There is always a need for left-handed pitchers in the majors, even if it’s to come into a game and get just one guy out.”  If Chris Rearick keeps getting outs the way he did this year, the club will have little choice but to move him up the ladder and closer to his big league dream.

(Note: Rearick finished the season with a 7-2 record, 20 saves in 50 appearances, a 1.66 ERA, an amazing WHIP of 0.799, and 89 strikeouts in 81.1 innings.)

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