Mike O’Reilly is the type of pitcher to let his heater speak for him.
In recent weeks his fastball has made the Flagler College graduate the talk of the town in Central Illinois. Pitching for Class-A Peoria, O’Reilly is riding a 24-inning scoreless streak heading into Saturday’s home start against Fort Wayne.
“The last few weeks my change-up has been more effective,” O’Reilly said. “I have been throwing more of those. I have been lucky to get ahead of guys and put them away.”
O’Reilly is 8-2 on the season with a 1.56 earned run average. The Midwest League All-Star leads the circuit with a 0.67 WHIP and is second in the league in earned run average.
In his last outing on Monday, he threw six perfect innings against Cedar Rapids en route to striking out 12 in a one-hitter. Of the 101 pitches he threw in Peoria’s 3-0 win, 80 were strikes.
The outing made O’Reilly the first Peoria pitcher in 20 years to post two complete game shutouts in a season.
“He was throwing all three of his pitches for strikes consistently,” Cedar Rapids outfielder Christian Cavaness told The (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Gazette after the game. “I think he threw less than 25 balls the whole game. He was just pound the zone with every pitch. We couldn’t just key on maybe one pitch because one of them wasn’t working.”
Cavaness’ double was the only hit O’Reilly allowed in the outing. Missing bats has become a staple for the right-hander who is in his first full year of professional baseball.
The Cardinals organization drafted the former Flagler ace in the 27th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft, but left him in Florida for extended spring training to start this season.
In mid-April he was sent to Peoria, but came out of the bullpen for his first three appearances. He blew a save in his first outing of the season and allowed another home run in his second. A promotion in early May led to a vacancy in Peoria’s starting rotation.
At the time Peoria manager Chris Swauger wondered whether the 22-year-old from Wading River, New York, had an out pitch.
O’Reilly did — the aforementioned changeup. It’s a pitch that Neal Heaton taught O’Reilly when the pitcher was still in elementary school.
“He is the same guy every time he goes out,” Swauger said. “That is his separation. He owns his stuff. He knows his stuff better than any pitcher I’ve seen. If you look at his velocity, and what he’s throwing, it doesn’t appear to be anything special. He is aware he has a high-spin fastball and a good breaking ball that he can throw down in the zone.”
At Flagler, O’Reilly was a four-pitch pitcher. Ahead of this season, he ditched his two-seam fastball and stuck with his four-seam fastball, slider and changeup.
Swauger said O’Reilly’s arsenal play off each other because all three pitches come out of the same arm slot. The spin rate make a high fastball look like it’s rising while the slider breaks away from right-handed hitters and the changeup can get underneath bats.
O’Reilly has allowed 15 hits in his last six starts. As impressive as that 39.2 inning stretch has been, the New Yorker has been even better in his last three starts. During his scoreless streak O’Reilly has a 30:1 strikeout to walk ratio and allowed seven hits during that spell.
O’Reilly has won each of his four starts since the All-Star break. He faced one batter in the eighth inning of the Midwest League All-Star game to help the West team earn a 5-2 win.
“That was a great experience,” O’Reilly said. “It was something I’ll never forget. It was an honor to be in something like that and an honor to be a part of it.”
O’Reilly graduated from Flagler with a degree in sociology. Within weeks he was in South Florida pitching for St. Louis’s Gulf Coast League team in Jupiter. He made 11 appearances and four starts while helping the Gulf Coast League Cardinals win the league title.
He remained in South Florida for extended spring training for two weeks this spring and roomed with former Flagler teammate Andrew “Opie” Brodbeck, who is an infielder in the Cardinals system.
Brodbeck has spent most of this season on the disabled list. Meanwhile, O’Reilly has been a workhorse since he was inserted into the Chiefs’ rotation.
“The grind of playing every day, it’s a lot of fun,” O’Reilly said. “I get to do what I love for 140 games. It’s a great time.”
While a lot of people would love to have their first full-time job after college to be a professional athlete, O’Reilly approaches his with a dedication to understanding data and an aggressive approach on the mound.
Swauger has been in the Cardinals farm system for 11 years as either a player or a coach. He said O’Reilly’s temperament reminds him of Seth Maness. The right-handed reliever was drafted by the Cardinals organization in 2011, does not possess overpowering stuff, but manages to get people out. Maness was on St. Louis’ pennant-winning team in 2013 and made more than 250 appearances in the big leagues.
“They knew what type of pitcher they were and they pitched to their strengths,” Swauger said. “They know how to attack with their stuff.”