FORT MILL — Charlotte Knights pitcher Andre Rienzo is trying to take an unusual path to the majors.
And Thursday’s seven-inning no-hitter against the Indianapolis Indians won’t hurt the Brazilian native.
As of January, only 15 players have ever signed with Major League teams out of Brazil, compared to the thousands of youngsters out of other Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Colombia.
Catcher Yan Gomes became the first Brazilian to reach the major leagues last May, and at 25, Rienzo has the chance to become the first Brazilian pitcher to reach the majors.
“You think of Brazil, you think soccer. And the women,” Rienzo said in an interview with MLB.com two weeks ago. “You don’t even think about baseball.”
Rienzo struck out a career-best 11 batters in the team’s third no-hitter and first since Carlos Torres threw a five-inning, rain-shortened perfect game four years ago in Pawtucket. The last nine-inning Knights no-hitter was thrown by Tetsu Yofu on Aug. 1, 2004 at home against the Durham Bulls.
Rienzo has a 1.64 ERA in his past ten starts, including a 1.27 ERA in his last five starts. After struggling early in the season, he has lowered his ERA to 4.06.
Growing up, Rienzo played soccer, but his mom took him to baseball practice on the weekends starting at age 4. She played softball and his two older brothers played baseball on a big complex with three fields.
“I didn’t want to go at the time I was young,” said Rienzo, in an interview earlier this week. “But I needed to go because my mother was there. I look at my brothers play and my mother play, and I start to like it and start to play, and here you go.”
Since there are no school teams, Rienzo played for a local team in his home of Sao Paulo, where White Sox scout Orlando Santana spotted him and fellow pitcher Murilo Gouvea in July of 2005. One year later, the team signed him for $200,000.
Rienzo spent his first two summers in the Dominican Summer League, where he had an ERA of 3.05 with 66 strikeouts in 56 innings. He continued to work his way up the minor league ladder with an ERA of less than 3.70 and more strikeouts than innings pitched in three of the next four seasons.
Last season, he was suspended 50 games for using Stanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid. He said then he bought a dietary supplement in Brazil that he now thinks was tainted.
Throughout his success, Rienzo has gotten a chance to represent his country and help his sport grow in popularity back home. This offseason he helped Brazil qualify for its first World Baseball Classic under manager and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.
Earlier this month, he was invited to the All-Star Futures Game, where he represented Brazil for the World team and threw one scoreless inning with a strikeout and no baserunners allowed.
For now, Rienzo is working hard, waiting for his chance in the majors, with a potential call-up looming when rosters expand in September.
“It’s the dream, you know; the dream is playing in the major leagues,” Rienzo said. “But I don’t try to think about it too much. I am in Triple-A now, so I need to focus here and do my job here. If one day I have the chance to be there, I’ll be happy.”