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Heat boosted by another ex-Detroit MLB pitcher

The Perth Heat bullpen was already looking loaded for the Australian Baseball League season, but now it's been further boosted with another pitcher with Major League Baseball experience ahead of the opening series in Melbourne.

The Heat's season will now begin on New Year's Eve in Melbourne against the defending ABL champion Aces to begin a four-game, four-day series that gets things underway after the initial first series against the Canberra Cavalry in Perth was postponed.

The Heat haven’t rested on their laurels despite the uncertainty, though, and their last two signings to further add to the impressive squad just happen to have been Detroit Tigers pitching teammates in Major League Baseball.

Perth local Warwick Saupold was already announced to make his return and he is expected to play during the series in Melbourne, and now the latest addition for the Heat is a former Tigers teammate of Saupold's, the exciting Zac Reininger.

After being drafted by Detroit in 2013, Reininger worked his way up into a regular MLB spot with the Tigers by 2017 and over the next three years he pitched by 53 games and even started once in 2019 – no mean feat in the big time.

But coming into 2020 he was traded to the Oakland Athletics and unfortunately for the 27-year-old from San Antonio, Texas, he wasn’t able to lock down a roster a spot and didn’t play any competitive baseball all year.

Reininger still was able to keep busy at home in San Antonio during the year and now that he's out of hotel quarantine in Perth, he feels he's not far off top shape coming into the ABL season.

"I kept throwing through September just in case I got the call up to do anything during the year. Then I shut it down for a little bit but haven't shut down completely," Reininger said.

"I was coaching some junior teams so I was still doing a bit of pitching with that and never really got out of shape. Then when I found out I was coming here I picked it up a little bit, and then did what I could in the hotel room. Now I have a week or two to get ready to get back playing again."

Despite not playing throughout 2020, Reininger is now entering his stint with the Heat thinking he could very well be a better pitcher than he was back in 2019 when he last played an official game thanks to the work he has been putting in.

"I actually found a guy in San Antonio who moved to Texas where I'm from and he runs this whole drive line type deal, but it's his own version," he said.

"I started working with him on things I needed to get done and as much as I hated being away from the game, this was the best thing to ever happen to me.

"Instead of worrying about travelling and pitching every other few days, I got through bullpens and I was able to actually work and develop my pitching. I was able to dive in and fix the little things, and had time to do that since I obviously didn’t have season.

"As long as I can keep executing then I definitely feel I'll be better now. The biggest thing for me is my body. Whenever I was throwing good or whatever it was in the past, my arm has always bothered me.

"But already after the first few weeks with this guy we did a couple of drills and I started throwing harder while feeling no stress on my arm. My elbow and shoulder felt fantastic, and I felt like I could throw 100 pitches seven days a week.

"My whole body just feels so much better so I'm hoping that will translate into this season to help me perform a little bit better than I have in the past."

Reininger might be making his first venture down under, but he is no stranger to Australian baseball on a couple of fronts. Firstly he's been a long-time teammate of Warwick Saupold and that certainly helps when you are joining a new team on the other side of the world.

"Knowing someone does help getting settled in and everything. I didn’t get to see him on my first night out but I met or 10 or 12 of the other guys, and they were all cool to hang out with," Reininger said.

"But having that familiar face is always very helpful and gets you settled in especially coming to somewhere so far away and so different for the first time.

"Obviously I've played with Warwick for a few years in Detroit and he's asked me to come down here a couple of times, but I'd been playing the full season and had Tommy John in 2016. In my first year I threw a lot of innings in 2017 so I always wanted to get my arm a rest in the off-season.

"But since I didn’t get to play this year, I wanted to do it. My brother actually had an opportunity to come out here and he said the biggest regret of his career was not coming so I told him if I ever got the opportunity I'd take it. So Waz messaged me and a couple of days later we were able to get everything going with the club."

Reininger's brother also once turned down a contract to come and play baseball in Australia and has regretted it ever since. So when the chance came his way this summer, he was never going to pass it up.

"The biggest thing for me coming down here was just to face some live hitters to get ready for Spring Training is a huge plus, but after my brother said one of his biggest regrets was not coming here, it's somewhere I always wanted to come," he said.

"I was going to keep working out back home but there I'd only get to face a couple of hitters and a bullpen, I wouldn’t get any live games. So this is a big opportunity for me to hit the ground running.

"It would be cool to come down here and win a championship as well as get me ready for Spring Training and get ahead of the guys I'll be battling for a spot on the team given I'm facing live batters when they aren’t."

Now with the season only days away for the Heat, given his last official game was for Detroit against the Minnesota Twins on September 26, 2019, he can't wait to get things underway again in a live environment.

"When I first got sent home from Spring Training when they shut it down, it was nice to have a break as we got into summer for a couple of weeks because I haven’t had a summer free of baseball since I was 13 or 14," Reininger said.

"I was ecstatic to start with and got to hang out with my buddies, and go to the lake and beach, but then you start to not realise what you had until it's gone.

"I didn’t have a chance to play at all this year and then it hit me that we really don’t know what's going to happen and I could have played my last game in 2019. It's nice to have another opportunity and hopefully I can make the best of it to keep my career going."

Coming from Texas and Reininger is actually looking forward to being part of a scorching hot summer down under, and this weekend in Melbourne should provide a chance to catch up with some old friends too.

"I haven't been out in the heat too much yet but being from Texas it's something I'm used to in the summer. I'm sure it's not quite the same, but it shouldn’t be too bad as long as I stay hydrated," Reininger said.

"I'm looking forward to doing some sightseeing. I've never been anywhere like this, I've been to smaller places in the States and to Hawaii, but never travelled this far away.

"To be able to roam around for a while means I should have time to see a lot of the country and my college is actually from Melbourne so I hope I can see him during that series next week.

"I'm looking forward to catching up with other guys who played at Detroit that I haven’t seen for a couple of years as well."

By Chris Pike

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