MEMPHIS -- Somewhere toward the end of the most dizzying string of pitches he'd ever caught -- arguably among the most dominant thrown at this level -- Carson Kelly looked up. The scoreboard looming high above right field of AutoZone Park, tucked in the heart of America's proudest music town, flashed a song.
Kelly turned to Alex Reyes, the right-hander riding a rhythm unheard of in the 116-year history of the Pacific Coast League, and posed a question.
"You know you struck out the whole entire lineup in a row, right?" Kelly asked.
Had Reyes done what he did Thursday night in St. Louis, Chicago or Milwaukee, the highlight of the righty's final scheduled rehab start would've challenged baseball history. Instead, it'll live as a footnote, a last-minute taste of what could come in a career now days away from its official restart. But what a footnote it was.
More than 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Reyes' return to the big league rotation had been scheduled for next week, no matter how he performed for Triple-A Memphis. Then, he went and struck out 13 batters -- including nine in a row during the middle innings -- in a 7-4 win over the Oklahoma City Dodgers.
With a 10-pitch, three-strikeout inning already under his belt, Reyes struck out Oklahoma City's No. 2 hitter, Breyvic Valera to end the third inning. The Dodgers' leadoff hitter, Tim Locastro, swung through a 99-mph fastball to begin the sixth. Reyes struck out each of the seven hitters in between, a full turn through the batting order. The largest of a night full of absurdities came in the fifth, when Reyes struck out the side on nine swinging strikes.
With Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak in the stands, Reyes allowed only one hit and two baserunners over seven scoreless innings. He threw 90 pitches, plucking at will from a four-pitch arsenal: his fastball sat at 98-99 mph on the stadium radar gun throughout the night; his curveball (82-85 mph) dove from the zone to elicit three punchouts; two separate secondary pitches darted opposite ways in the low 90s, a changeup falling armside and a slider running away from right-handed hitters.
"That was the best I've ever seen him," said Kelly, who has caught Reyes since they were both in Class A. "I'm going to sit up tonight and think, 'Man, what the heck just happened?'"
Reyes, St. Louis' No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, threw 23 scoreless innings across four rehab starts at four different levels. He struck out 44 and walked seven, going 3-0.
"He's basically pounding the door down saying he's ready," Mozeliak said. "When you watch how he is in complete command of what he's doing, it certainly allows you to have a lot more confidence in the decision you're about to make."
In a final act of caution, the Cardinals will wait to see how Reyes recovers before officially reinstating him from the 60-day disabled list. The move can't come until Monday and will require an additional 40-man transaction. But Thursday's performance all but assured Reyes will be activated when eligible, lining him up to start Tuesday against the Brewers at Miller Park.
"I wouldn't bet against it," Mozeliak said of Reyes starting Tuesday.
Reyes' start will be his first since Sept. 29, 2016. He went 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 12 appearances (five starts) that season before injuring his right elbow the following spring.
What happens next is still unclear. Reyes can slide undeterred into the Cardinals' rotation with Carlos Martinez on the DL with a right lat strain. When Martinez returns, St. Louis will have three high-ceiling arms -- Reyes, Jack Flaherty and Luke Weaver -- vying for just two spots.
"I'm ready, I feel 100 percent," Reyes said. "But the day I'm active on the roster will be the day I say I'm back. Until then, it's work until we get there."