Early in his career, the thought of family and friends back home watching online or listening on the radio only added to the pressure Colin Rea placed on himself.
Now in his ninth season of professional baseball, those same supporters have helped the 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-hander from Cascade, Iowa, enjoy a pitching renaissance.
Rea ranks among the Pacific Coast League leaders in several key categories and on Wednesday will represent the Iowa Cubs at the Triple-A All-Star Game in El Paso, Texas. He spent the first nine seasons of his career in the San Diego Padres organization, including parts of three seasons with their affiliate in El Paso, before joining the Chicago Cubs’ top minor league affiliate.
“Obviously, it’s a great honor to represent the Cubs at the All-Star Game, but it wasn’t really a goal I set for myself at the beginning of the year,” Rea said Sunday night before departing for Texas. “My goal is to be in the big leagues and help the team win games. It is cool to be recognized, though.
“It’s going to be nice to go back to El Paso, especially because my wife and kids and my parents are going, too. We’ll be familiar with all the good spots to go. And we’ll try to make it as much of a break as possible.”
Rea, who turned 29 last week, chose to sign a free-agent contract with the Cubs in January because they offered the best opportunity to be close to home — by either pitching in Chicago with the big club or in Des Moines with the Triple-A team. For the first time in his pro career, he can make quick trips to Cascade and relax with his family, including wife Megan and their two young children, when time allows.
“It really helps to go home and kind of separate things and take a little pressure off,” Rea said. “I’m not thinking about baseball so much. To be honest, baseball is constantly on our minds as it is. By going home, you kind of get away from it a little bit.
“The support I’ve had from my family, friends and extended family who have been coming to the games has been awesome. When I was younger, that would have added some pressure, but right now, where I’m at in my career, it doesn’t really affect me in that way. I don’t give it a second thought, to be honest.”
It took time to clear that small mental hurdle.
“I got to the point where I realized people are going to support me, no matter how I do, good or bad,” Rea said. “Also, what it really comes down to is focusing on the game and the things you have to do to be at your best. When you do that, the other things just kind of go away.”
This season, Rea has rewarded his followers for their patience over the last few seasons.
Rea made his Major League Baseball debut on Aug. 11, 2015 and went 7-7 with a 4.69 ERA in 26 appearances over two seasons. Just days after being traded to the Miami Marlins in 2016, he suffered elbow discomfort that led to the teams reversing the deal and ultimately Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2017 campaign.
Rea went a combined 3-5 with a 5.73 ERA in 75 1/3 innings covering 18 appearances between Triple-A and Double-A last season, when shoulder discomfort further delayed his return. The Padres decided not to add him to their expanded roster in September and didn’t re-sign him two months later.
This season, Rea leads the Pacific Coast League in victories with a 10-2 record, shares second with 17 starts, ranks third with a 3.24 ERA and sits in fifth with both 94 1/3 innings pitched and a 1.29 walks and hits per inning average. He has struck out 69 batters and walked 37, and opponents are hitting .241 against him.
Rea has been the most consistent pitcher for the I-Cubs, who hold a 10-game lead on Omaha for first place in the American Northern Division.
“I knew if I was healthy I could produce and help the team win some games, and even do it at the big league level,” said Rea, who needs one victory to match his career high set in 2014 at Lake Elsinore of the Advanced Class A California League. “I’m feeling really good right now. Last year, it was kind of a struggle coming back. I didn’t think anything was wrong at the time, but, looking back, I don’t think I was 100 percent healthy. This year, so far, everything’s been feeling really good.
“This season has been huge for me. I’m at a point in my baseball career where I need to produce and put up good numbers and prove I can be at my best every fifth day. I’ve found a really good routine and workout plan. I know exactly what I’m doing each and every day I come to the ballpark.”
For the physical side of his success this season, Rea quickly credits pitching coach Rod Nichols. In his fourth season at Iowa and 20th in professional baseball, the former Cleveland Indians hurler has tweaked Rea’s lower-body mechanics to yield more consistent results.
Nichols likens the area below a pitcher’s knee on his back leg to a stick shift. It controls direction and power, so he teaches his pitchers to drive that back shin toward the catcher’s mitt.
“I’ve always had my back knee kind of collapse toward third base — a lot of people do — so my direction toward home plate has always been a little off,” Rea said. “Then your timing is off and you start throwing across your body. Keeping everything straight toward home plate has improved my arm angle, so I’m not throwing across my body and I’m able to stay on top of the ball a little more.
“Everything works from the ground up. If you can fix the things at your feet, the stuff up top is going to work with it. My lower body mechanics have helped the consistency of the way the ball comes out of my hand and the way I feel between starts.”
The information isn’t new to Rea. His pitching coaches in the Padres organization worked with him on his lower body mechanics, too.
“But the way Rod references it to me and the way we’ve worked on it in our bullpens just makes more sense to me,” Rea said. “I can relate better, and it seems like we’re speaking the same language. Now, during starts or between innings, he can tell me what I’m doing.
“I don’t ever remember this happening in the past, but this year I’ve had games where I struggle early but actually get better throughout the game and get up a tick or two in velocity. In the past, it was hard for me to make adjustments in the middle of a game. But, again, it’s a matter of us speaking the same language.”
Rea’s success brings the inevitable questions about a possible call-up to Chicago. The Cubs have not placed him on the 40-man roster, complicating matters for a promotion.
“I don’t know anything, to be honest,” Rea said. “It’s tough not to think about, especially when people ask about it. But, I can’t waste my time or energy wondering what’s going to happen. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing and, hopefully, I get a chance to go up and help them win.”