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If Max Rajcic’s baseball career goes as he hopes, Springfield will have been just a stop on the way to the major leagues. But he will remember July 4, 2024, as something very special to him from his time here.

“In front of all the fans, a full house, it was really cool,” Rajcic said of the Springfield Cardinals’ 7-1 victory over Northwest Arkansas in front of 6,036 fans at Hammons Field. Before the postgame fireworks, Rajcic was given a bath in an ice bucket by his teammates.

The celebration came after Rajcic pitched eight innings, his career-high as a professional, and nothing short of a showpiece. He allowed seven hits, one run, one walk and nine strikeouts in the best start of the right-hander’s minor league career.

“Oh my God, he was a total hitter,” said Springfield manager Jose Leger in his assessment of Rajcic’s performance. “He attacked the strike zone from the start with all four pitches. Curve and the slider for strikes and the changeup, along with his fastball at the top of the zone, was a devastating pitch.”

“He kept the batsmen in check and off balance throughout the game.”

Rajcic is scheduled to make his next start on Thursday, July 11, when the Cardinals host the Wichita Wind Surge, an affiliate team of the Minnesota Twins. He looks to use last week’s success as a springboard for that start and the rest of the season.

Just be yourself after a bumpy intro to Double-A

Springfield Cardinals pitcher Max Rajcic is doused with cold water by his teammates after a game at Hammons Field.
On a hot and humid Fourth of July, before the postgame fireworks and after his stellar performance as a pitcher, Springfield Cardinals teammates doused Max Rajcic with an ice-cold bath in front of the home team’s dugout. (Photo by PJ Maigi, Springfield Cardinals)

The Cardinals’ No. 14 prospect was the organization’s 2023 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, according to He went 9-6 with a 2.48 earned run average at Low-A Palm Beach and High-A Peoria before being called up to Springfield for the Texas League playoffs.

But the transition to Double-A in 2024 has been a bit bumpy for the 2022 sixth-round draft pick out of UCLA – especially in April, when he had an ERA of 8.04 after four starts.

“At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t really myself,” Rajcic said. “I put a little too much faith in the hitters,” adding that he eventually told himself, “It’s the same game I’ve played my whole life. Just be the pitcher that I am and … just trust my stuff.”

Leger said the motto applies to the entire workforce: believe in yourself and be in attack mode.

“You hate to let a guy with a .205 batting average walk at the bottom of the lineup,” Leger said. “We have to be able to attack the strike zone. You can’t give the hitter too much credit. He has to earn it. That’s something we preach as a team.”

Not all shots within the zone are the same

Rajcic said he decided to “restart my season halfway through the first half” and things have been going much better since then. After the initial difficulties, accepting the adjustments that the higher level brings has led to better results, he said.

What he did in the minor leagues doesn’t necessarily work in the Texas League – especially in the hitter-friendly Hammons Field. Details matter. Not all hits inside the zone are created equal.

“With two strikes, you can’t just throw the ball over the plate, you have to be more subtle with it,” Rajcic said. “Also, the position of the fastball is important. You have to be able to pitch up and down, in and out.”

Ironically, the pitch he considered his worst earlier in the season – the changeup – may be his best today. At least that’s what Rajcic thinks.

“I’ve made great progress with this pitch and worked on it a lot,” Rajcic said.

With an arsenal that includes a curveball and slider in addition to a consistent 90-mph fastball, he’s becoming increasingly confident throwing any of his four pitches in key situations. On the Fourth of July, all of them were spot on.

“It felt really good to go back out for the eighth inning,” Rajcic said of his longest appearance since throwing a complete nine-inning game for UCLA against Washington State in 2022.

Hope to go from Sonny Gray fan to teammate

Max Rajcic, wearing the Springfield Cardinals uniform, throws the baseball during a game at Hammons Field.
Max Rajcic said his changeup has gone from his worst pitch to start the season to his best as he and the Springfield Cardinals battle their way into the second half of the Texas League schedule. (Photo by PJ Maigi, Springfield Cardinals)

For the Southern California native, who grew up a Los Angeles Angels fan and whose favorite pitchers included Jered Weaver and Sonny Gray, the rest of the season could bring another climb in the organization’s pitching rankings.

He doesn’t worry about promotions, preferring to focus on the task at hand. Not that the possibility of one day being a pitching teammate of Gray in St. Louis hasn’t crossed his mind.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Rajcic said Gray is his favorite because he is of similar size and build. He was able to chat with Gray a little during spring training this season, but watched him more than he talked to him.

“I watched how he did his job, how he did his (bullpens),” Rajcic said. “I also adopted a few things he would do in his bullpens.”

Perhaps one day Rajcic will be the veteran who catches the eye of up-and-coming minor league players. It was always his perceived destiny to make the major leagues.

“I was always convinced I would make it,” Rajcic said. “I don’t remember it, but my mother said that when the teachers asked me what I wanted to be, I said, ‘I’m already a baseball player.’ That was in kindergarten.”

“It’s cool that I’m in Double-A now and just a few steps away.”

Therefore progress, Hjerpe to IL

Springfield Cardinals pitcher Tink Therefore sits in a dugout at Hammons Field in Springfield, Missouri.
Top prospect Tink Therefore hopes to trade his time on the bench for a return to the pitcher’s mound and could potentially pitch for the Springfield Cardinals as early as this weekend. (Photo by PJ Maigi, Springfield Cardinals)

Tink So, the Cardinals’ top minor league prospect, is scheduled to take a live batting practice on July 10. Leger said if all goes well, So could return to the mound as early as this weekend.

Therefore hasn’t pitched since June 23, when he left a game in Corpus Christi after one inning because of fatigue in his throwing arm. He threw two innings at Arkansas on June 5 before leaving the game with cramps in his arm and side.

So he, 4-2 with a 3.29 earned run average in 12 starts, said he had an MRI of his shoulder last week and the results showed no problems. On July 9, he said he decided not to accept an invitation to this weekend’s MLB Futures Game in Arlington, Texas, a showcase of the best minor league players.

“It’s a pretty tough decision,” Therefore said of staying in Springfield to continue working toward a return rather than competing in the Arlington show. “But this is a big season for me and I want to come back and finish strong.”

Meanwhile, left-hander Cooper Hjerpe was placed on the seven-day injured list on July 9. Hjerpe left his July 2 start at Northwest Arkansas with a shaking arm. Since being promoted from High-A Peoria in mid-June, he was 2-1 with a 3.07 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 14 ⅔ innings.

“With Hjerpe, the only thing that is a little bit concerning is the place where he had pain, everything that has to do with the arm,” Leger said. “We are being extra cautious. There are no structural problems. He will be fine. It’s just a matter of time and the rehab that the organization is preparing for him.”

Cardinals home game

  • July 9 – Springfield 7, Wichita 6 (10 innings)
  • July 10 – Springfield vs. Wichita, 7:05 p.m.
  • July 11 – Springfield vs. Wichita, 7:05 p.m.
  • July 12 – Springfield vs. Wichita, 7:05 p.m.
  • July 13 – Springfield vs. Wichita, 6:35 p.m.
  • July 14 – Springfield vs. Wichita, 1:05 p.m.

For tickets, call (417) 863-2143 or visit the Springfield Cardinals website.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has been covering sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years. He has covered nearly every major sporting event in the region over the past 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and avid open-fire cook is also the public relations director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, and co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @LyndalScranton. More from Lyndal Scranton