NEW YORK — C.J. Riefenhauser had the longest name among the 51 top minor-league prospects gathered at Citi Field on Sunday for the All-Star Futures Game showcase. But the left-handed reliever was far from the biggest name, a 20th-round pick grinding his way through the Rays' minor-league system in hopes of becoming one of their next success stories.
"I haven't been the first- or second-round guy, the top prospect kind of thing," Riefenhauser said. "I'm just going in there and battling all the time."
Riefenhauser, 23, has showed well so far, moving up a level during each of his four pro seasons, promoted in late June from Double-A Montgomery, where he had a 0.51 ERA and 11 saves in 34 appearances, to Triple A.
He carried that into Sunday, needing just six pitches to work a 1-2-3 eighth inning and protect a 3-2 lead for the U.S. team.
"I was just trying to throw strikes and hope I didn't leave one right over the middle so they didn't hit me too hard," he said. "My goal going into it was trying not to be nervous or overwhelmed."
Riefenhauser, whose initials stand for Charles Joseph, was added to the Futures Game roster in place of Rays top pitching prospect Taylor Guerrieri, who is being rested after he reported fatigue, but that did not diminish the thrill.
"I'm not mad about taking his place, let me tell you that," Riefenhauser said. "It's an honor to be included, to be recognized."
Making it even more rewarding, Riefenhauser grew up and still lives less than an hour from Citi Field, so between his proud parents, Chuck, who is in elevator construction, and Mary Lou, a nurse, other relatives and friends, he had about 90-100 fans cheering him on, many hanging out by the bullpen bugging him about when he was getting in.
The Rays are as impressed with what Riefenhauser has done as how he has done it, with an all-out competitiveness and an aggressive approach. They will decide after this season whether to add him to the 40-man roster.
"C.J. Riefenhauser has good stuff, 91-92 mph (fastball), he has the ability to spin (a curveball) and he's trying to work on a changeup for right-handed hitters," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "But what this kid brings, he has some inside toughness. He loves to compete. He's a great story because he's another young guy that will, will himself to the big leagues."
Dewey Robinson, one of the Rays' minor-league pitching coordinators, saw all he needed to during Riefenhauser's first spring training in 2011.
The Class A teams were in Fort Myers, and the Twins, as is common, sent some big-leaguers over to get at-bats by hitting in every inning. So lefty slugger Jim Thome, who had 589 home runs at that point, stepped in against Riefenhauser.
"Thome's first at-bat, he busted his bat and hit a weak fly ball and was out," Robinson recalled. "Second at-bat, Rief carves him up and strikes him out. Usually these guys stick around for five or six at-bats, but after that second one, Thome took it to the house. He had enough I guess.
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"For me, that was the moment I said this kid's got something, he's pretty special. That was his coming-out moment. That really put him on the radar."
Riefenhauser said it has been a learning process as he moves through the Rays system. His two biggest adjustments have been learning to attack every hitter, which he picked up in rookie ball from Marty DeMerritt, and to accept that results are secondary to development, which he is constantly reminded of by Lukevics. For example, he experiments with the changeup and occasionally gets burned.
Riefenhauser was undrafted out of Mahopac (N.Y.) High, then bounced in two years from Iona (N.Y.) College to Guilford Tech (N.C.) Community College to Chipola College in the Florida Panhandle to get comfortable and noticed. So he fully understands the process it takes to reach the majors.
"I'm in no rush," Riefenhauser said. "Every step along the way has been unbelievable, it really has."