GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Evan Reifert has faced 33 batters over the past four weeks in the Arizona Fall League. He has struck out 20 of them. That’s just one way to appreciate the AFL dominance the right-handed reliever has exhibited this autumn -- and extended with another dominant outing Saturday.
The Rays pitching prospect fanned five more hitters over two scoreless innings in Mesa’s 10-3, seven-frame win over Glendale at Camelback Ranch.
With that game-ending performance under his belt, Reifert has still yet to allow a run or even a hit over his six appearances with the Solar Sox. His line of 9 2/3 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 20 K would read as one of the most dominant starts in baseball history if it wasn’t spread out over so many outings. But as it stands, the 23-year-old, who relies heavily on his mid-80s, high-spin slider, might be one on his way to one of the most dominant relief seasons in AFL history instead.
“I’ve got a good slider; I’ve known that since I’ve been here in pro ball,” Reifert said. “I’m just getting to showcase that now here. It's been a lot of fun, and obviously getting to see different competition levels here, it’s been good. It gives me more and more confidence every day.”
It has been a journey to get Reifert to shut down AFL hitters the way he has this October.
He was a 30th-round pick by the Rangers in 2018 out of North Iowa Area Community College but chose to stay in school before transferring to Central Missouri, where he managed to get in only four games in 2020 before the pandemic shutdown. The Brewers still signed him as an undrafted free agent and helped him get his pro career off to an impressive start with a 2.10 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 60 innings at Single-A and High-A.
The Rays acquired Reifert last November in a one-for-one trade for Mike Brosseau, on the strength of that slider and his mid-90s heater, and didn’t want to touch anything in terms of the right-hander’s stuff.
“They knew they're already good pitches,” Reifert said, “so we just went from there.”
Tampa Bay coaches and coordinators did make one other suggestion, however. They recommended that catchers stay center of the plate with Reifert on the mound, thus keeping his focus on the meaty part of the zone instead of getting too fine which had led to control issues in the past.
That part remains a work in progress. After Reifert walked seven batters in 3 1/3 Double-A innings to start 2022, the Rays sent him back to the complex in Port Charlotte, Florida, to see if they could lock in more command.
“I took it back to being more simplistic,” he said. “I think I got in my head a little bit with thinking mechanically. I really got back to being athletic again, being confident and athletic and being the power pitcher that I am.”
Reifert was a much better pitcher at High-A Bowling Green following his return, striking 43 and walking only 11 in 27 innings, before his assignment to the Arizona Fall League to make up for some of the lost competitive innings in Florida.
Control will likely be a focus for Reifert throughout his career, as it was again Saturday when he walked two of the first four batters he faced and issued three free passes in total. But the slider sweeps so well across the zone and dives away from swinging bats that whiffs are likely to keep coming for the 6-foot-4 hurler. Case in point: he fanned his final batter faced (Rece Hinds) on four straight sliders, three of which resulted in swings-and-misses.
“It’s just another streak,” he said. “We’re going to continue to keep doing what we’re doing and make minuscule adjustments as we go.”