Max Rajcic, wearing a Springfield Cardinals uniform, pitches the baseball during a game at Hammons Field.
Max Rajcic, a sixth-round Cardinals draft choice in 2022 out of UCLA, worked a professional career-best eight innings in his best Double-A outing to date on July 4 as Springfield beat Northwest Arkansas 7-1. (Photo by PJ Maigi, Springfield Cardinals)

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If Max Rajcic’s baseball career projects as he hopes, Springfield will have been a mere pit stop on the road to the big leagues. But he will always have a special Fourth of July in 2024 to remember from his time here.

“In front of all the fans, a packed 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 post-game fireworks show, Rajcic received an ice bucket water bath from his teammates.

The celebration came after Rajcic pitched eight innings, his career-high as a pro, in nothing short of a gem. The best start of the right-hander’s minor-league career saw him allow seven hits, one run, one walk and strike out nine.

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

“He just kept the hitters in check and off-balance the whole game.”

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

Just being himself after bumpy intro to Double-A

Springfield Cardinals pitcher Max Rajcic is doused by his teammates with cold water after a game at Hammons Field.
On a hot and humid July 4, prior to post-game fireworks and after his pitching gem, Springfield Cardinals teammates drenched Max Rajcic with an ice-cooler bath in front of the home team dugout. (Photo by PJ Maigi, Springfield Cardinals)

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

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

“At the beginning of the year I wasn’t really being myself,” Rajcic said. “I was giving the hitters a little bit too much credit,” adding that he finally told himself, “It’s the same game I’ve been playing my whole life. Just be the pitcher who I am and … just trust my stuff.”

Leger said the theme goes for the entire staff, to believe in themselves and be in attack mode.

“You hate it when you walk a guy who is hitting .205 in the bottom of the lineup,” Leger said. “We have to be able to attack the strike zone. Don’t give the hitter too much credit. Make him earn it. That’s something we preach as a staff.”

Not all strikes within the zone are equal

Rajcic said he decided to “kind of restart my season in the middle of the first half” and things have gone much better since. After the initial struggles, he said embracing the adjustments that come with the higher level has led to better results.

What he got away with in the lower levels doesn’t necessarily work in the Texas League — particularly at hitter-friendly Hammons Field. Details are more important. Not all strikes within the zone are equal.

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

Ironically, the pitch that he considered his worst at the beginning of the season — the changeup — is now perhaps his best. At least Rajcic thinks so.

“I’ve taken a lot of strides with that pitch and been working on it a lot,” Rajcic said.

With an arsenal that includes a curveball and slider in addition to a fastball consistently in the mid-90s, he’s growing confident in throwing any of his four pitches in key situations. On the Fourth of July, all were on the money.

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

Hoping to go from Sonny Gray fan to teammate

Max Rajcic, wearing a Springfield Cardinals uniform, pitches the baseball during a game at Hammons Field.
Max Rajcic said his changeup has gone from being his worst pitch at the start of the season to his best as he and the Springfield Cardinals battle 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 with Jered Weaver and Sonny Gray his favorite pitchers, the rest of the season could see a continued climb up the organizational pitching depth chart.

He’s not worrying about any promotions, preferring to focus on the task at hand. Not that an eventual chance to someday be a pitching teammate of Gray in St. Louis hasn’t crossed his mind.

The 6-foot, 240-pound Rajcic said Gray was a favorite of his because he’s of similar size and build. He got to chat with Gray a bit during spring training this season, but found himself doing more watching than talking.

“I watched how he went about his business, how he went about his (bullpens),” Rajcic said. “I adapted a couple of things that he would do in his pens, too.”

Perhaps there will come a day when Rajcic will be the veteran who attracts the eyes of aspiring minor leaguers. Making it to the big leagues has always been his presumed destiny.

“I’ve always had the confidence I was going to make it,” Rajcic said. “I don’t remember it, but my mom said when teachers asked what I wanted to be, I said, ‘I’m already a baseball player.’ That was in kindergarten.

“It’s cool now that I’m in Double-A and only a couple of steps away.”

Hence making progress, Hjerpe to IL

Springfield Cardinals pitcher Tink Hence sits in a dugout at Hammons Field in Springfield, Missouri.
Top minor-league prospect Tink Hence hopes to trade time on the sidelines for a return to the pitchers’ mound, possibly pitching as soon as this weekend for the Springfield Cardinals. (Photo by PJ Maigi, Springfield Cardinals)

The Cardinals’ No. 1 minor-league prospect, Tink Hence, is scheduled to throw live batting practice on July 10. Leger said if all goes well, Hence could return to the mound this weekend. 

Hence has not pitched since June 23, when he left a game at Corpus Christi after one inning with fatigue in his pitching arm. On June 5, he threw two innings at Arkansas before leaving with cramps in his arm and side.

Hence, 4-2 with a 3.29 earned run average in 12 starts, said he had an MRI on his shoulder last week and the results showed no issues. He said on July 9 that he has decided to skip an invitation to this weekend’s MLB Futures Game in Arlington, Texas, a showcase for top minor leaguers.

“It’s kind of a tough decision,” Hence said of staying in Springfield to continue working toward a return rather than join the showcase in Arlington. “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 a July 2 start at Northwest Arkansas shaking his arm. He was 2-1 with a 3.07 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 14 ⅔ innings since a mid-June promotion from High-A Peoria.

“With Hjerpe, the area where he felt the discomfort, it’s just a little concern, anything that is related to the arm,” Leger said. “We’re being extra cautious. There is nothing structural. He is going to be fine. It’s just a matter of time and him getting rehab the organization is setting up for him.”

Cardinals homestand

  • 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 covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton