HOUSTON — As he picked up yet another order of Chipotle for perhaps the third time in a day and then sat in Phoenix traffic to deliver it, Reggie McClain couldn’t have felt further from the big leagues. Driving for Uber Eats isn’t exactly how he wanted to be spending his evenings.
But when you’re 26 and going into your fourth professional season never having pitched above the High-A level, sacrifices needed to be made. McClain wanted to spend this past offseason in Arizona, working out with teammates at the Mariners’ facility in Peoria and attending the organization’s “Gas Camp” — workouts aimed at building pitcher velocity.
Because he was a senior draft pick out of Missouri in 2016 with a $5,000 signing bonus and making the pittance paid to lower-level minor-leaguers, he had to find a way to make ends meet. Uber Eats worked best for his schedule.
“I was grinding,” he said. “I would go to the field in the morning and drive at night, delivering food all over Phoenix.”
Glamorous? No. But it had to be done. Now, all those hours spent in a car, hating traffic while smelling food — some good or bad — that wasn’t his, well, it’s paid off with a life-changing achievement.
On Friday, McClain’s minor-league contract from Class AAA Tacoma was selected, and he was added to the roster, replacing the open spot belonging to Mike Leake.
“If those people could see me now,” he said with a laugh.
Admittedly, in those moments while driving or even when he started the season at High-A Modesto, the big leagues seemed like a far off place — a faraway hope more than a realistic destination.
“I did not picture myself being in the big leagues this year,” he said.
Not many in the Mariners organization would have predicted such a rapid rise. McClain started the season at Modesto and dominated. He pitched in six games, allowing one run in 16 innings with 20 strikeouts and four walks. It earned him a promotion to Class AA Arkansas on April 29. After posting a 1.15 ERA in six appearances with the Travelers, he moved up to Tacoma on May 30. In 17 games with the Rainiers, he was 3-4 with a 3.29 ERA. In 41 innings, he struck out 34 batters with 18 walks.
“Reggie has had quite a season,” manager Scott Servais said. “If you go back to starting in the Cal League to being in the big leagues. He came in today, and I was like, ‘That’s a hell of an accomplishment. That’s pretty quick.’ I got some good insight talking to him a little bit what’s been able to allow him go through the journey so quick.”
McClain credits the offseason spent in Arizona and the transition from starting to the bullpen as the catalysts for his rapid rise.
“It put me in more of an aggressive mindset to just attack all the time,” McClain said. “Plus my offseason routine I adopted — throwing long toss in my throwing program and using the weighted balls, the bullpen just seemed like a better fit for what I was ultimately trying to do, which was gain velocity this year.”
Gas Camp introduced the usage of weighted balls, and he had a talk with Allen Jaeger of Jaeger Sports, who pushed for him to implement a specific long-toss program. He also added 20 pounds to his frame — no not from Uber Eats — but “good weight.” His velocity on his sinking fastball now touched 96 mph instead of topping out at 92 mph.
“My velo just skyrocketed after that,” he said. “Working out and being in Phoenix all offseason, I gained 20 pounds. I put myself in a good position this year to come out and have a good season. I was able to be around people that we all had the same goal. I wasn’t working out at an L.A. Fitness by myself, I was working out with baseball players. So everyone having that same mindset, doing the same thing, working toward the same goal, it makes the environment for you to get better.”
When he entered the game Friday, he was the 60th player to play for the Mariners this season and the 37th pitcher used.
McClain was having breakfast Wednesday morning when he got a call from Rainiers manager Daren Brown. Only he didn’t know it was Daren Brown at first.
“It was 206 number and I didn’t have it saved,” McClain said. “So I was thinking, ‘Should I answer it or not?’ Something told me I should answer it. So I did, and he told me, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I just got called up.’”
It took a few minutes for it to register with McClain before he realized he should be calling people. He called his mother, who normally is the one that answers the phone. But she didn’t. So he called his father and other friends to tell them the news before finally getting a call from his mom.
“She was kind of sad because she missed my phone call being the first one I was going to tell,” he said. “My dad actually told her.”
McClain was a 13th-round pick in the 2016 draft. But he thought he would be drafted after his junior year in Missouri, when he posted a 7-7 record with a 3.56 ERA in 15 starts. But he went undrafted and returned to Missouri and went 5-4 with a 3.65 ERA.
“Yeah, I was disappointed I didn’t get drafted after putting up the year I did in the SEC,” he said. “But I can’t complain now. Everything happens for a reason.”
McClain’s path to being drafted was well-traveled. He initially committed to the University of Georgia as a junior at Northview High School in Johns Creek, Ga. He injured his shoulder during the summer before his senior year of high school and essentially spent his senior year rehabbing the injury. After being redshirted in his first year at Georgia, he transferred to State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, where he rebuilt his arm strength and resume in two seasons and signed with Missouri.
“I had scouts coming to me in high school until I blew my arm out,” he said. “I knew I wanted to play professional baseball. I was hurt the whole time at Georgia. I decided not to get surgery and rehab it back. It took some time. It’s been up and down all throughout, through those trials and tribulations, it was just staying strong and having a family support system that believed in me. It kept propelling me forward.”
From Mariners minor league field coordinator