Colin Rea has never experienced a journey quite like his 2021 baseball season.
And, remember, he spent much of last summer in the unorthodox environment of an alternate training site created by Major League Baseball because of the coronavirus pandemic ...
The 31-year-old right-handed pitcher from Cascade, Iowa, originally signed to play in Japan but had his season delayed by COVID-19 travel restrictions, then a positive test result. The premature birth of he and wife Megan’s third child brought him home in July, he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers organization a month later, starred at Triple-A Nashville and earned a promotion to the big leagues for the final weekend of the season.
“I couldn’t have imagined that things would have worked out the way they did this season,” said Rea, who split the 2020 season between the Chicago Cubs and their alternate training site in South Bend, Ind. “This whole year, there weren’t too many times where I had the same routine between starts — not even in Japan. Things were just going by so quickly, I didn’t have time to stop and think about what was going on.
“It was always a matter of, ‘OK, what do I need to do today to get ready?’ For some reason, my mentality was a little different this year. It was more a matter of whatever happens, happens. It wasn’t that I had a built-in excuse, because I would never make excuses. But things were so crazy that the expectations and pressure I usually put on myself were a little lower this year, just because of everything that was going on. It was even more crazy the way the season ended.”
The Brewers promoted Rea to Milwaukee for the final series of the regular season when star reliever Devin Williams fractured his throwing hand. Williams punched a wall after his team celebrated its National League Central title earlier in the week, and surgery more than likely would have kept him out of the entire postseason.
“Sometimes, things just line up,” Rea said. “This game is crazy. You never know what can happen. That’s why I want to keep playing as long as possible, because you just never know. Stuff like that happens, and you’re in the right place at the right time.
“There have been plenty of guys I’ve played with in the minor leagues who were certainly good enough to make it to the big leagues, but that call never came. You just have to stick to it, because you never know what can happen.”
Rea made one appearance with the Brewers on the second-to-last day of the regular season. He came on in relief of Corbin Burnes, who pitched the first two innings and took the loss in an 8-3 decision at Los Angeles.
Rea allowed five runs on seven hits and struck out five in the final six innings of the game. He threw 91 pitches, 57 for strikes, and more importantly, ate enough innings to save Milwaukee’s pitching staff for the final game the following day.
“Colin did an unbelievable job and it sets us up tomorrow in a really good spot to be more effective with our pitching,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said that night. “Six innings in relief — he is a starter — but to get six innings is not easy to do. He threw a ton of strikes tonight and he threw good stuff.
“His cutter got going as the game went on and he got some quick outs with that. It put us in a good spot for tomorrow. We’re going to have a bullpen game tomorrow, but we have a lot of fresh pitchers to do that.”
Rea appreciated the vote of confidence.
The Brewers then placed Rea on the taxi squad for the postseason and asked him to continue workouts at home in Cascade so he could join the club in the event of injury or a COVID-19 outbreak. Other members of the taxi squad worked out in Milwaukee but had no contact with the players on the active roster.
“It did feel good to go six innings, because that’s always my goal as a starter,” Rea said of the appearance against the Dodgers. “There aren’t too many times I’d be satisfied going six innings and giving up five runs and some hard-hit balls. But the next day, it was going to be a bullpen game, and we really wanted to win it and keep the Dodgers in the wild card game instead of them having a chance to win their division.
“It meant a lot to hear positive things from the guys and the coaching staff after going six innings and keeping the bullpen fresh. I felt pretty good leaving them with something good in their heads about me.”
Rea had plenty of other things going through his head this spring.
A delay in receiving his visa kept him from spring training in Japan, then he tested positive for COVID-19, further delaying his arrival to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s top professional league. The virus made him feel sluggish for just a few days, but he recovered quickly enough to begin workouts.
A two-week quarantine in Japan followed, although the team allowed him to throw on his own to prepare for the season. His first three scheduled starts, all at the minor league level in mid-May, were rained out.
“It was just one thing after another,” Rea said. “But, once I got a few starts under my belt, I was able to ramp things up quickly. The build-up went really well. My body felt good, so I was perfectly fine with that.
“It took me a while to adjust. It was hard, because you couldn’t have family over there because of the virus. Plus, they were quite a bit behind the U.S., so you couldn’t do much outside of just going to the baseball field. There was a lot of down time, which made things seem to go even slower.”
After the adjustment period, Rea went 3-1 with a 2.03 ERA in six games, striking out 38 and walking 13 in 40 innings for Fukuoka.
“The baseball was awesome, and the coaches and players are super smart,” Rea said. “A couple of their minor league coaches helped me with some mechanical stuff that I used throughout the rest of the season. It took some stress off my arm, and I was a little more consistent with my pitches.
“But the style of baseball is a little different, so you have to change the way you approach the game as a pitcher.”
Japanese baseball features more of an old-school flavor, with the bunt, stolen base and hit-and-run preferred over the home run ball. Nick Martinez, a right-handed pitcher who spent four seasons with the Texas Rangers before signing in Japan in 2018, helped Rea in his transition to the different style.
“Getting the first out in an inning is huge over there, because it completely changes the (offense’s) strategy,” Rea said. “You can’t pitch an MLB style over there. There aren’t a lot of swings and misses, especially up in the strike zone. That may play over here, but you have to pitch more East and West (in the strike zone) in Japan.
“Even in the minor leagues in Japan, I made a few starts and got hit hard. They really gave it to me, which was good in a way. It was like, ‘OK, I have to change something here.’”
Overall, Rea enjoyed the experience.
“The guys on the team and the coaches were all awesome,” he said. “It was tough, though, with my family not being able to come over.”
LONGER STAY AT HOME
Rea returned to Cascade in mid-July when Japanese baseball paused for the Olympic break. He arrived in time for Megan’s 31-week pregnancy check-up, but the following day, their third child arrived early, resulting in a one-month hospital stay in Iowa City.
“I felt very fortunate that I was home when we had to go to Iowa City,” he said. “I was only supposed to be home for 10 days, but there was no way I was going to be heading back with everything we had going on here.”
Rea worked out at the University of Iowa baseball facilities while in limbo. Fortunately, his agent, Joe Speed, found a way for Rea to pitch closer to home for the remainder of the season instead of returning to Japan. More importantly, his newborn daughter is healthy.
The Brewers organization showed immediate interest and planned to send him to Triple-A Nashville for the final two months of the season.
“It took a little longer than I would have liked to get the contract in Japan figured out, but I tend to get a little impatient when it comes to stuff like that,” Rea said. “At this point in my career, no time can be wasted. I don’t know how long it’s going to last.
“The way I was feeling and the way I was throwing the ball, I didn’t want to shut it down for the rest of the season. I wanted to keep throwing, especially with an organization like the Brewers. With the season they were having, I felt I could help them in some way. It was a great opportunity, and I was thankful they gave me the chance.”
In seven games with the Sounds, Rea went 4-2 with a 2.27 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings of work. In four starts during the month of September, Rea posted a 4-0 record with a 1.16 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings.
“In Iowa City, I was able to throw bullpens, but I wasn’t facing live hitters, so it wasn’t the same,” Rea said. “Some guys can ramp it up to their top velocity by throwing bullpens, but, for me, I need the adrenaline of having a hitter in the box.
“I had to re-adjust to the style over here, too. It took a few starts to get it back, but I felt pretty locked-in in September.”
GETTING THE CALL
In signing with Milwaukee, Rea agreed to a contract clause that enabled him to opt out on Sept. 19 in case another organization wanted to use him in the big leagues for the final two starts of the season. He opted out, no other organization called, and he returned to Nashville.
“The Brewers were cool with me opting out, which I appreciated,” Rea said. “At the time, their staff was loaded, and they didn’t have a spot for me in the big leagues. It was a situation where I had nothing to lose, because I knew they’d have me back and I could finish up the year at Nashville.”
As it turned out, the Brewers called following Williams’ unfortunate injury. He received the news from Triple-A manager Rick Sweet.
“Any time you get that call, no matter where you are, you get that nervous energy,” Rea said. “You get that anxiousness, that excitement. It’s not quite the same as the first time you get the call. But, after how crazy everything was this year, it was definitely very rewarding to go back up to the big leagues.”
ON THE HORIZON
Rea signed a two-year contract with Fukuoka. But Milwaukee liked his results the past two months, and other MLB organizations will likely express interest in his services for next summer.
“We’re actually in a holding pattern right now,” Rea said. “Joe and I haven’t talked about next year yet. I have a few ideas, but we won’t really get started until after the World Series.”