Reynaldo López almost quit baseball. Now he’s starring for the Braves

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Reynaldo Lopez throws to a Washington Nationals batter during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/John McDonnell)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Reynaldo Lopez throws to a Washington Nationals batter during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/John McDonnell)

WASHINGTON — As Reynaldo López thinks back on the process of trying to be noticed and signed out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager all those years ago, something immediately comes to mind.

“I remember that I almost quit playing baseball,” López said.

This might shock you. How could Reynaldo López – the pitcher now starring as a starter for the Braves – ever have been in a position to ponder giving up baseball? But he is serious. He almost quit and finished school.

To this day, López can recall a conversation he had with his then-coach, Carlos Pérez, in the Dominican Republic in 2012, when he was 18 years old. At the time, a frustrated López was tired – physically and mentally.

He had thrown for Cleveland, the Cubs, the Reds, the Tigers and the Pirates. In these tryouts, his velocity was sitting at 93 mph to 94 mph. He was striking out batters.

“I think I threw (five) times, and then, like, nothing,” López told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Nothing. Like, (in terms of) offers – nobody. And then I was like, ‘I’m just wasting my time.’”

None of the teams he threw for offered to sign him. They all had the same painful message: Wait, wait, wait. But nothing happened after all that waiting. “And I just got tired,” López said. He also felt deflated because, on the international scene, some teams view an 18-year-old as too old to sign – especially because López wasn’t throwing harder because of arm fatigue.

So one day, he told Pérez, his coach: “Hey, I just want to quit baseball.”

Pérez tried to persuade López to stick with it.

“Hey, let’s try again, two or three more tryouts, and let’s see what happens,” he said. “If not, just quit and go to school.”

Soon after that, the Nationals reached out. They wanted López to try out for them and spend a week in their Dominican academy. Before that, López – usually regimented in his routine – took two weeks off from throwing. And with a well-rested arm, he sat 95 mph to 96 mph for the Nationals scouts.

“They were like, ‘You just tried to quit baseball and then you’re throwing like 95, 96?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. I was just tired,’” López recalled. “And then (the scout was) like, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot.’ I faced six batters and they just said, ‘Hey, just wait a week and see what happens.’”

The Nationals offered to sign him for $17,500.

López’s first call went to his grandmother, Dulce. He asked her what she could do with that money.

“That’s too much money for me,” Dulce told her grandson.

‘Grateful’ for the chance the Nationals gave him

López came from humble beginnings. When he was a boy, his grandfather sold one of the family’s cows to buy him a glove and a bat. So this signing bonus was a lot of money for his family.

To this day, López is grateful to the Nationals for believing in him. They took a chance on him – a shot others declined.

“Very grateful, because they gave me the chance,” he said. “They gave me the chance, and then I took it and I try to do my best every time. If they didn’t sign me at that time, I don’t know where I would be – if I would still be playing baseball or not.”

If he had quit baseball, he likely would be a financial advisor.

Instead, he’s in the starting rotation for one of the best teams in baseball.

Years after trying out for those teams, López learned Cincinnati believed he was too small to be a pitcher. (He’s now listed at 6-foot-1.) “They said, ‘Little guys are going to blow (out) their arms,’” López said. The Cubs, López said, thought his arm action was too long.

The Nationals saw something else – something special.

“He was a good athlete,” Mark Scialabba, Washington’s director of player development when López was in the system, told the AJC over the phone. “He was someone that had a really quick arm, could spin the ball. He came on pretty quickly for us, and we knew that there was something different about him – his ability to pitch at the top of the zone with the fastball and then drop the breaking ball down for strikes. He took to coaching really well and made strides, and moved through the system relatively quickly for a young player coming over from the Dominican Republic.”

In July 2016, López debuted for the Nationals at 22 years old. He even pitched in a postseason game later that year.

Almost eight years later, he returned to Nationals Park as one of the better starting pitchers in baseball to this point in the season. On Tuesday night, López thought about how he would be returning to Washington to make a start Thursday – his second start at the ballpark since the Nationals traded him and Lucas Giolito to the White Sox for Adam Eaton after the 2016 season.

On Thursday, López allowed only two runs over six innings. He has been so dominant that this quality start increased his ERA to 1.85 through 11 starts, which ranks third in baseball among qualified pitchers.

López struggled as a starting pitcher in Chicago and eventually became a reliever. He didn’t even make the team in 2021. But the Braves gave him the opportunity to start again.

Now look at him.

“The only thing I can say is God is great,” López said. “That’s the only thing I can say: God is great. You have a plan, you have a goal, but God’s plan is different than ours. And then crazy things happen, and then when you look back, you are like, ‘Oh, thank God,’ because everything happens for a purpose. I’m so proud of everything I’ve done. My family is living good right now – my grandma, my mother. I’ve been through a lot of bad things, and now it’s like, to be in the big leagues, with this team, that’s the only thing I can say – God is great.”

Rewarding the Braves’ faith in him

Over the offseason, the Braves signed López to a three-year, $30 million deal – far more than his signing bonus out of the Dominican Republic. At the time he passed his physical and signed his contract, his grandmother, Dulce, was among the family members in Atlanta with him.

She was in the hotel and, when it all became official, she went to López’s room.

“And then she started crying,” he said. “She was talking to me like, ‘Hey, I prayed a lot for this moment.’ And then she started crying, crying, crying. I’m like, ‘(Grandma), it’s OK. Now you don’t have to worry about money.’”

Aaron Bummer, a left-handed reliever with the Braves, shared a clubhouse with López in Chicago. Bummer saw it all – López’s days as a starter and his transition to the bullpen.

Bummer also was a 19th-round pick. No one promised him a major-league future, which is why he has a soft spot for the guys who almost fell through the cracks. López is one of them.

“I know that he wasn’t happy with the way that he pitched in probably 2019, 2020,” Bummer said of López’s time as a failed starter. “But look at him now: It’s something where he pushed through all that crap and got to be in a spot to where he’s a good starter.”

López has rewarded the Braves’ faith in him. They believed he was an improved pitcher from when he last started, and they appear correct. He’s taken those lessons and experiences from starting and relieving, and applied them.

In 2017, Bummer saw López for the first time when both were in Triple A for the White Sox organization. López was blowing 100 mph heaters past everyone. And in 2019, Bummer saw López strike out 14 batters in a start versus Detroit. That day, López began the outing sitting 92-94 mph, then finished at 96-98 mph.

The two were part of Chicago’s relief corps, but Bummer knew López might have a chance to start again after moving into the bullpen.

“It was one of those things like, you knew that the arm was always there,” Bummer said. “It was just him finding a role into what he can be, and I think that when he switched to (being) a reliever, he fine-tuned his pitches. The fastball command got better, the breaking ball, it’s gotten better. He was able to fine-tune a lot of those things, and that’s what really helped him blossom into a starter now.”

Bummer said López is still a quiet guy who loves his family – the same as when the two met in Chicago. And all those years ago, the Nationals believed López had good makeup (the baseball word for character).

“He was very competitive at a young age,” Scialabba, the Nationals’ former director of player development, said. “Learned how to deal with adversity. He battled through some injuries and rehabbed and went through that process, and worked hard at not only his pitching craft, but his body and taking care of his habits on a daily basis. He’s a good person, very positive-minded and appreciated people that helped. You could see that there was someone that was very mature for his age.”

Living a dream after not giving up

Nowadays, López tries to give back to his community in San Pedro de Macoris, where he grew up in the Dominican Republic. In the offseason, he works out at a ballpark near his childhood home. (He has his own house a bit further away.) There are kids there who say they want to be like him.

So once a week, he practices with them at the field. He interacts with them and tries to help in any way he can.

“They just ask me questions like, ‘How did you get success?’ and all that kind of stuff,” López said. “And first thing that (he says) to them, like, ‘Hey, just believe in God, just try to do your best every day, try to be better every day.’”

There already are two pitchers from there – kids who used to be in those groups – who signed to play professional baseball. One plays in the Rays organization, the other in Cleveland’s system. You can tell this brings joy to López.

Years ago, López prayed for his opportunity. And at the time, he felt it might not happen.

But he told this entire story – about how he almost quit baseball – on a beautiful day at Fenway Park, one day before his next start in the major leagues.

He is living his dream.

“It’s crazy,” López said. “I’m telling you, man: God is great.”