LOS ANGELES -- The scene was far too familiar for Alex Reyes.
Pitch out of his hand, bat connected upon ball, all he could do was watch it sail well beyond the reach of his teammates in the outfield. Reyes turned, took a few steps towards St. Louis' dugout and placed his face into the webbing of his Cardinal-red mitt -- mind racing, thoughts private, adversity palpable.
For someone who's been through so much in his career -- on the field searching for his top-prospect pedigree, off the field with injuries and personal hardship -- finding himself in that spot Wednesday, pitching with his team’s season on the line, is inspiring. But that doesn’t help alleviate its crushing result: A 3-1 walk-off loss to the Dodgers in the National League Wild Card Game.
When Reyes arrived back in the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, shortly after his hanging slider was walloped into the left-field seats by Chris Taylor to end the Cardinals’ season, manager Mike Shildt gave him a hug. Adam Wainwright, elder statesman of the pitching staff, found the young right-hander and did so, too.
“We're not here without Alex Reyes,” Shildt said. “We're just not.”
“We're not here tonight without Alex Reyes,” Wainwright echoed.
Indeed, they would not have been. Reyes was an All-Star after seizing the closer role in Spring Training, not just performing with quality but setting a Major League record for consecutive saves to open a career.
But Reyes now has to face the reality that the last pitch he threw in the 2021 season, no matter how far an imbalance it is with the rest of his year, resulted like it did on Wednesday. The Cardinals’ magical season came to a close and the Dodgers’ season-ending highlight reel will feature a clip with him on the mound.
“‘Hey, man, you walk out with your head up. You've got a lot to be pleased about with this year,’” Shildt told Reyes. “Similar message to the club. ‘You've got a lot to feel good about and you've got a reason to hurt, too. I’m not going to take away the hurt, because the hurt is what motivates you to move forward.’”
The 27-year-old’s memory will have to be brief this offseason. Now fully healthy after three lengthy injuries to start his career, Reyes will compete for a rotation spot next spring. That has been the plan all year, after the Cardinals built up his innings and his arm strength again.
“He was an All-Star closer the first half of the season, he put us on his back a lot of the time this year,” Wainwright said. “We all completely believe he's going to come back strong.”
Wednesday, granted, might not have been a spot suitable for Reyes. In two prior instances this year -- both coming amid the August struggles that led to him being removed from the closer role -- Reyes entered in the ninth with a runner on base. He proceeded to fall into the same fate each time: a walk-off three run homer in Pittsburgh on Aug. 29 and a walk-off grand slam in Milwaukee seven days later.
But Giovanny Gallegos had a nail issue pop up after pitching a scoreless eighth inning, and thus was not able to return for the ninth. Shildt went first to T.J. McFarland after Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sent up pinch-hitter Gavin Lux, getting Los Angeles to burn him as a bench bat and turn instead to Albert Pujols.
The game hinged on McFarland’s walk to Cody Bellinger after he had retired Pujols and Steven Souza Jr. Shildt -- with Dakota Hudson, Jack Flaherty and Génesis Cabrera in the bullpen -- turned to Reyes in part because of his track record for the majority of the season but also because of his penchant for the strikeout in such a situation.
It was not a mess that was wholly Reyes', even though a solo home run would have invited an identical result. But it is a circumstance he was thrust into and one he will have to not let saunter with him off the mound and into an offseason of asking “What if?”
“Each time he's been dealt that hand,” Wainwright said, “he's come back even stronger.”