That Thompson would mention conference weekends hints at how urgent his task is. There are three short weeks of preseason practicing and scrimmaging before the Diamond Dogs open their 2014 season. Between now and Valentines Day, the pitching coach not only must select starters for a four-game weekend but figure out who throws relief when, how, and who against.
No wonder then a full-score of pitchers were worked in two days. A couple of them more than once even, as lefthander Lucas Laster did short relief both days; and righthanded veteran Will Cox not only both days but in Sunday's scrimmage he threw twice in the same seventh inning and for both squads! "We were just trying to finish here and get to the weightroom," confessed Thompson, as a brand-new pitcher was struggling to close out the afternoon and a 5-0 lead by the Black team had shrunk to 5-3 with bases loaded.
The primary first-impression by Thompson about early scrimmaging was just that guys got to throw against batters who knew them, and with score being kept. "Everybody has gotten out there and got their feet wet," said the coach.
"The next two weeks are going to be huge to slowly build pitch-count, get over this first onset of soreness. It's just different being back up on that mound instead of long-toss and preparing in the throwing program. So we'll take care of them this week and line back up for next weekend."
What did Brandon Woodruff and Ben Bracewell show Saturday in their starts? "Woodruff got his two innings in. we had such a special fall getting back going. Then he got hit with the ball going back up the middle on the knee so when he got through that second inning I was like ‘get him out of there'!"
"I thought Ben was OK, he had those pins in the foot that were taken out. He's had such a good slider for most of his career when he's been healthy, we weren't quite as good Saturday. I wish we would have just had the two innings and got him out, two of his three walks were sending him back out for a third inning. He probably wasn't ready for that, he begged me to go back out for a third and I got mad at him because I was mad at me for letting him go back out. We should have punted after two innings!"
"But his competitiveness, he's a captain, he's already promised he's going to throw 100 innings for me. So we've got to keep growing and getting better, he wasn't in mid-season form but I trust him. I just really hope he can have a full year."
We got to see Paul Young for the first time Saturday, and Ross Mitchell returned to pitching. "Paul Young getting on the mound I thought was a bright spot on the day, he showed good velocity and kind of navigated through and got himself three outs. Getting Ross out there the first time since Omaha (was good)."
"And (Sunday) once we got down in pitching depth I believe I saw a ‘line' of where our depth is and that fall-off. So we have to get some younger guys keep getting better, you want as much depth as you can possibly build. It's a long season and post-season is long as well so we have to continue to build depth. We saw an obvious line where that is. But we're still getting guys in roles, and getting a lot of guys involved."
"Changing pitchers is much of it, not just having a starter get out and give you a good game. Changing pitching pitchers so much it was pretty good until the last couple of innings Sunday. It's one thing to pitch and make good pitches. It's another thing to get guys out and create good sequences. So everything has been really positive.
You came with two freshmen in Sunday's starts, how did that work? "Yeah, I'm tickled to death. I don't think I can hide that from you or the team or fans how excited I am about Austin Sexton and Dakota Hudson. I know they're going to be great college pitchers, I know they're going to have great careers. The sooner the better is what we would want!"
"But Dakota really came out, I think 18 of his first 20 pitches were probably fastball, he challenged the strike zone. He's athletic, he has velocity, a live arm. And the separator for me that gives a chance for a guy to pitch early is he wants to be great now. It's not like he's trying to figure it out or is awe-struck, he really focuses and works like a veteran. He doesn't give days or pitches away and when somebody is already showing at a young age they want to be great that's positive."
"Austin is going to be one of those guys that can throw three pitches, and it might be 88 to 90 but there's a curveball and a real good changeup he can throw to right- or left-handed hitters. So you just feel the pitchability and I'm real high on those two freshmen."
You ‘scripted' most changes, but it actually worked out that relievers like Myles Gentry and Will Cox and others got to pitch in situations they'll face for-real in the season? "Yeah, and you want to start immediately preparing them for what you're trying to master. I think if I didn't try to continue to play real games, bring guys into real situations that John is going to ask them to do in a month, he would be tapping me on the shoulder ‘c'mon now!' So we're really convicted about getting them in those spots. We did that with the bullpen pieces."
John Marc Shelly retired all eight he faced Sunday, this is a crucial year for him? "It's time. He got six outings last year and had a ERA, but he wasn't really in the active rotation the second half of the year. Now he's as sophomore. We've changed his slider, we thought his breaking ball just did not get over the plate enough and hitters were sitting fastball. We totally changed it and boy, he really filled the zone up with breaking balls. You know, half the things I do wind up not working out, but that breaking ball got over the plate and allowed him to get in three innings today, not intended to but he did a good job getting outs. It's time for him to assert himself, he knows what is going on and definitely has enough skill."
Watching from upstairs it looked like most of the pitchers were able to get in the bottom of the zone? "Yeah, I think so. I think they're making pitches. If you saw right there at the end we had a couple of guys that just couldn't get in the strike zone and it makes the whole deal drag. We forget sometimes how important pitching is (in scrimmages) just to make everybody stay glued-into the game, to make everybody keep energy. That will be my teaching point to my pitchers now, if you don't get ahead and stay ahead you let everything fall apart."
How is the next week structured? Woodruff and Bracewell aren't completely 100% strength yet and need work, but you want to look at everyone else too? "Well, there's only two more times for these starters to go out there. The third time from now is going to be Valentines, Opening Day, the whole nine yards. I really wanted to get everybody forty pitches and kind of got them to 30, 35. So we've got to use our two bullpen (sessions) this week to line them back up and try to get 45-50 pitches; and then 55-60 and hopefully 70-75 on Opening Day."
"We'll probably move Woodruff and Bracewell to Friday; and follow that up with Trevor Fitts and Preston Brown so they'll probably settle into Saturday. And probably do those two freshmen again on Sunday. That's what we'd be looking at for next weekend."
"If you look at the seven days before, the weather has been awful and these two days have been pretty good. It looks like we'll be in that great Palmeiro Center working on some bunt defense and first-thirds for the next couple of days, but we need that also."