NEW YORK -- C.J. Riefenhauser hadn't been with Triple-A Durham long when manager Charlie Montoyo walked up behind him at his locker to say congratulations. Riefenhauser couldn't help but wonder what he had done.
"He's like, 'You're going to the Futures Game,'" Riefenhauser said Sunday. "I was like, 'Come on, man. Don't mess with me.'"
It's hard to blame Riefenhauser for being a little skeptical. He's not exactly cut from the same cloth as most of the players in Sunday's SiriusXM Futures Game at Citi Field. He's a guy who bounced around with three colleges in two years, was a 20th-round Draft pick in 2010, and is now a Triple-A lefty reliever with a fastball in the 91-93 mph range.
You won't find him on any top-prospect list, and the scouts at Citi Field weren't lining up to see him like they were for Taijuan Walker or Archie Bradley. He didn't get a $6-million signing bonus like U.S. teammate Byron Buxton. In fact, Riefenhauser signed out of Chipola College for "pretty much nothing."
But he's now one step away from the Majors, and he found himself playing Sunday alongside some of the game's brightest young stars at Citi Field. Not only that, he worked a perfect eighth inning on only six pitches, inducing a first-pitch popout, a flyout to center and a soft lineout to the second baseman.
"I was just trying to throw strikes, and hope I didn't leave one right over the middle," he said. "That was my goal going into it, trying not to be nervous and overwhelmed and just try to stay within myself."
"How about Rief? It's great. Glad for him," said Rays director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics. "This guy competes. This guy takes no prisoners. He likes to play baseball. He willed himself to this game."
Riefenhauser, 23, agreed that his entire career has been that way -- "an uphill battle," as he put it. But the Rays have given him every chance to succeed, and he's taken advantage of those opportunities. He came here as an injury replacement for top pitching prospect Taylor Guerrieri alongside fellow Rays pitching prospect Enny Romero, a more traditional Futures Game selection.
Romero, the Rays' No. 6 prospect, showed off his electric left arm as he pitched the second inning for the World Team. Romero got C.J. Cron to swing at three straight fastballs -- 93, 94 and 95-mph -- before giving up a single to Joc Pederson and an RBI double to Marlins prospect Christian Yelich.
But he worked in his slider and changeup, touched 97-mph on the radar gun and struck out Addison Russell to cap off his second Futures Game appearance in as many years.
"First time was very nice," said Romero, 22, who's 8-4 with a 2.93 ERA in 19 starts for Double-A Montgomery this season. "Second time? I was surprised."
Not as surprised as Riefenhauser was, of course. His numbers obviously speak for themselves: a 4-0 record, 0.75 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in 60 innings between Montgomery and Durham. And it's clear the Rays have an interest in his future.
They've had Riefenhauser work on a changeup that would help make him more than just a situational lefty reliever in the Majors. If he's capable of pitching multiple innings and getting out both righties and lefties, it's not too hard to imagine Riefenhauser turning into the Rays' next J.P. Howell or Cesar Ramos.
But when his promotion to Triple-A took him out of the running for the Southern League All-Star Game, his mind didn't jump to a possible spot in the Futures Game. He'd actually been talking to his mother, Mary Lou, about finding a cheap flight back home to New York during his break.
He got to make that trip home, as it turned out. "A nice vacation," he said. Just not the one he expected.
"Now, I just got a free ticket home and get to play here," said Riefenhauser, who had between 90 and 100 friends and family in attendance. "I couldn't ask for anything more. It worked out perfect.
"It was awesome. I live 45 minutes up the road. I feel honored to be here. I know Guerrieri's supposed to be here, but I'm not mad about taking his place, let me tell you that."
While he's not a top prospect like Guerrieri or Romero, it made sense in a way that Riefenhauser would represent the Rays at Citi Field. For a team that has to Draft well and generally can't afford to wade into the free-agent pitching market, Riefenhauser is something of an organizational example.
So when scouting director R.J. Harrison asked executive vice president Andrew Friedman for a "pref list" entering the final day of this year's Draft, Friedman responded that Harrison should "get us another [Kevin] Kiermaier or Riefenhauser."
"We'll take it every Draft," Lukevics agreed. "C.J. Riefenhauser's a nice surprise, and you've got to give him all the credit in the world. That's wonderful for him, because we're in the business of developing players, and you can never develop enough."