At that point, Thompson was a promising, but generally unknown reliever who had closed a few games and had done some nice work in middle relief, mostly for Peoria before being called up to Palm Beach at the end of the 2003 season. His aggressive move through the minor leagues continued this season.
While Thompson drew favorable remarks for his October and November performance in the AFL, that didn't hold a candle to his crowning 2004 accomplishment. Given the chance to start with Tennessee, he made the best of the opportunity. While with the Smokies, Thompson carved up Double-A hitters, not allowing a run for a minor-league record 57-2/3 consecutive innings. As the streak approached record-breaking proportions, it led to Thompson being noticed all over baseball and in the major media. After all, the previous record stood since 1916.
However, almost as quickly, things went sour. After just three games at the Triple-A level with Memphis, Thompson's season ended after 87 innings pitched and a 9-2 record at both levels, as he sustained a season-ending shoulder injury.
This fall, Thompson reported to fall Instructional League before hurricanes changed those plans for the entire organization, with the Jupiter complex among the many areas ravaged in Florida. After a three week interlude, Thompson again returned to pitch, this time back in Arizona. He joined the AFL's Mesa Solar Sox during the final week of October, taking the place of Adam Wainwright, who left the team for his wedding.
In recent years, the type of players selected to join the AFL has become more stratified than ever before. There is a growing gulf between the legitimate prospects and the long-timers who might be getting their last chance to show they have a future. With that shining scoreless innings pitched streak as an addition to his resume, there is no doubt in which camp Thompson is squarely placed.
I asked Toronto Blue Jays scout Kimball Crossley about Thompson. Crossley is covering the AFL and sees Thompson as a legitimate major league prospect. At this point, Crossley is unsure whether Thompson's ultimate destination is a major league rotation or the bullpen. Apparently, that is consistent with the Cardinal organization view. The jury is still out.
Crossley observed that as a pitcher moves up, hitters at each level become more and more selective. As a result, more and more, they lay off balls low in the zone and tee off when ahead in the count. He was most interested in whether Thompson can control his trademark pitch movement. Another key for Thompson's future is whether or not he can add an effective third pitch to his low 90's sinker/slider bread and butter. More on that later.
I caught up with Thompson the day after his 2004 AFL debut, in which he tossed two shutout innings. The day before, I did a double-take when I saw him playing cards in the locker room. At that point, I didn't know about the roster switch with Wainwright. I thought I was having some kind of weird 12 month flashback or something.
On the second day, Thompson was easy to locate. He was sitting in the stands in street clothes, working the radar gun and charting pitches with several of his Solar Sox teammates. Brad was kind enough to give me at least twenty minutes of his time; long enough for me to exhaust every one of my questions. I am quite positive that it will not be the last time we speak.
Brad, it's great to see you again. Here's my card.
My parents love your website. I gave them your card last year. They're always going there and checking up. (shameless Birdhouse plug)
I guess any conversation now has to begin with the streak. How did it change your life on and off the field?
You know what? It just kind of got my name out there. I was never a big-round guy or anything, a top prospect. It just kind of helped getting my name out. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence out there. Every time I go out there, I feel like I am not going to give one up. Obviously, you do, but you never want to.
Any downside to it all?
No. I don't think so. It was just a great experience. Probably it will never happen again. So, it was something that was really enjoyable.
I was at Busch when you were going for the record. I had the Smokies game broadcast on my laptop over the internet and was giving updates to the Cards media folks and the other writers in the press box. It really captured everyone's imagination.
That's awesome. It was fun.
The bar is set high now. It is incredible to think about the accomplishment, isn't it?
I was talking to Nelly (shortstop John Nelson). And he said "Man, on a few of those plays, I thought I was more nervous than you. It's one thing for you to give it up, but for me to do it? That's bad!"
A year ago, you told me that you hoped to end the 2004 season in Double-A. Instead, you moved ahead quickly and made it all the way to Memphis. How do you feel about your progress?
I think coming to this league last year is what helped me make the Double-A team, showing that I could get quality hitters out. That gave me a boost; that and the start I had. Getting to go to Triple-A was great. Unfortunately, I got injured; I was on the DL for awhile. It just happens. Gotta stay strong this year.
Tell me about the injury. Exactly what was it and what did your rehab entail?
Actually, it was just an internal impingement. It kind of got weak in the back and the shoulder pushed forward and started pinching. So, my range of motion was terrible. I basically did rehab stuff – stretching and strengthening - and it took me almost two months to get my full range of motion back. But it feels great now.
So, was the main problem the pain?
It was just a pinch, yeah. Every time I cocked my arm back, I'd get a pinch right there in the front.
What did they tell you might have caused the injury?
Well, basically, it was the use and being weak in the back of the shoulder. So, I've been concentrating on doing a lot of rotator cuff and scapular work and that kind of thing. Just making sure it doesn't happen again.
Who supervised your rehab? Did it come down from St. Louis?
The trainers from Memphis. It came from our program. You know what to do. It's just something that I need to make sure that I keep doing all year long and not slack on it.
What are your instructions for down here in Arizona?
I was at Instructs (fall Instructional League) before the hurricanes came and took us out. I was supposed to work on a change-up. But, I don't think this (AFL) is the kind of place to work on a change-up. Here I am just going to try to make up some innings and have some quality starts.
When did they tell you that you were going to come back here?
They told me when I first went to Instructs that I was going to come down here. But, when that was canceled, I pretty much had to be on my own program at home. I had to make sure I was ready to come down here.
What did you have, about three weeks between?
Yeah, three weeks off. I was throwing to some kids down there (in Las Vegas) and a buddy I've got with the Royals caught me.
You're a sinker/slider guy now. Are you looking at the change-up becoming another "out" pitch?
If I am going to be a starter, I'd like to have a strong third pitch. I've got a change-up now that I am feeling pretty comfortable with; that I am trying to lay in there now. We'll see. It'll be a good pitch to have, though.
Did you throw any changes in your two innings yesterday?
I threw one, but it ended up being in the dirt. So, I just stuck with the sinker. (laughs)
How did you feel being out there again yesterday?
It felt a little uncomfortable being out there for the first time against live hitters in over a month. It was alright. But, I hate walking people. Walking the first guy made me mad, but I got some ground balls.
You managed to take him out in a double play, so that was a good recovery.
The stands are pretty empty here, but there's more people than at Instructs. Does pitching in front of a small crowd matter to you?
You just can't get pumped up. I think it's harder. I'd rather play against a group of people that are all against me than nobody.
I noticed you were wearing a new number, 32, yesterday.
Yeah, they gave me Adam's (Wainwright) jersey without his name on it before my uniform got here. I actually prefer 25. Some combination of seven or eleven.
Is it a superstition thing like with Larry Walker and threes?
No, it's not like that. I just like seven and eleven.
Coming from Vegas and all; that makes sense.
Yes, I guess so.
You started in pro ball as a reliever and switched to starting this year. Which do you like better and why?
I enjoy them both. I like starting and going out there for six, seven, eight innings. But, I also like relieving. The intensity. Just getting up and going. So, I really have no preference. Whatever they want me to do; I am ready to go.
As you move up the levels of play, do you find hitters lay off low balls more at higher levels?
Yeah, they do. My big thing is my sinker. A lot of times I'll notice that in A-ball I like to start on the inner half and let it run to their feet and they will swing at it. But, at the higher levels, guys will lay off that pitch and wait for one that is going to start over the middle and come in. You've just got to be more selective. It's a cat-and-mouse game.
Obviously, a lot of your game is movement. How much of that can you control? Can you make the ball go where you want it to?
I know pretty much where it's going most of the time. A pitch that I am trying to work on is a Maddux-type sinker on the outer half that comes back. That's a little harder for me to do. For the most part, I can control the sink, unless I am flying off. Then, it just runs in the dirt. For the most part, I know where it's going.
How important is it for you to have a good working relationship with your catcher? You can't be worrying that when throwing a sinker, can you?
I think it's really important, especially with me. I am a sinker-type guy. Most of the balls are going to run in. I had Gabe Johnson catching me the other day and he did perfectly. He knew exactly what I wanted to do – sinker and slider – and we work together well.
You threw eighty-seven innings this year. Is that a career high?
I think so. Yes, it is. It should have been a lot higher than that, but I got hurt. But, yeah, that was my high.
Are they trying to build up your endurance?
Absolutely. I know there's been some talk about me maybe going back to the pen. So, who knows?
Is that something you'll know before reporting to spring training?
I don't think so. I think it will be something to be discussed then.
Where do you hope to be at the start of the 2005 season?
I hope to start in Memphis and get some good starts in there. I'd like to be there. It's a beautiful place.
With great fans…
Yes. Best fans in minor league baseball, I am guessing.
We'll see you again in the spring. Good luck.