Brad on Bonding and Belonging

Cardinals reliever Brad Thompson shares how his 2006 Cardinals teammates are coming together.

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, pitcher Brad Thompson began the 2005 season as one of many organizational prospects trying to distinguish himself in Memphis, with absolutely no idea if or when he would make his major league debut.

Just over one month later, on May 8, Thompson made his first big-league appearance and collected his first save in the process. It was an indication of what was to come.

After all, Thompson was the first member of the 2002 draft class to make "the show", despite having been a 16th-round pick. This youngster who many figured would get just a cup of coffee last May began a season-long run in one of the top pens in baseball and was named the team's 2005 Rookie of the Year.

By the time the 2006 regular season had arrived, you'd think the 24-year-old had experienced everything, from rookie hazing to hostile bullpens to staring down enemy clean-up hitters. But this year itself was new.

Thompson was one of five Cardinals who experienced his first Opening Day on Monday, along with teammates Josh Hancock, John Rodriguez, Skip Schumaker and Adam Wainwright.

It was a calm and confident Thompson who spoke to me from the visitor's clubhouse in Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday. Yet, he was clearly excited about being asked to pitch on Opening Day on Monday, when the reliever spun a scoreless inning against the Phillies. "It was great to get out there right from the very start," he said. (Thompson added a scoreless eighth inning Wednesday night, also, and picked up the win when the Cards came back in the ninth.)

Keeping the ball down is driven into the very fiber of how all Cardinals pitchers operate, but in a hitter's park like Citizens, Thompson realizes it is even more crucial. "It is important everywhere, but you really have to keep the ball down here. (Chase) Utley didn't even get around on a ball and it almost left the park. If you leave it up, you will pay," Thompson said as he bobbed his head knowingly.

Thompson didn't mind at all joining several of the Cardinals newcomers in getting the call early in the 2006 season. In fact, he welcomed it. "I know what Tony was doing and I appreciate it. You want to see the new guys in action quickly. That was great for me."

Brad was also pleased that his parents were able to catch both his game and the Busch exhibition between his former Double-A and Triple-A stops Tuesday night via satellite. "They really follow the action back home in Las Vegas," Thompson said.

Thompson likes what he sees in the 2006 version of the Cardinals bullpen, one which has turned over completely with the exception of himself, Randy Flores and Jason Isringhausen. "The guys already have a great dynamic with each other," Thompson said enthusiastically.

Not only because their numbers (#48 and #50) are in sequence, and therefore, their clubhouse stalls are next to one another, it is clear that Thompson can relate to what the rookie Wainwright is experiencing. The two can often be seen talking with one another before and during the game.

Thompson singled out one change from year to year that was tough for him, however. "Cal (Eldred) was really important to me. He helped me in so many ways, on and off the field. I learned a lot from him. Cal is definitely someone I am going to continue to keep in touch with."

While former bullpen leaders Eldred and Ray King are gone, Thompson didn't hesitate when I asked him if a new sheriff has emerged. "(Braden) Looper is already pretty active in that role. Someone has to keep Izzy in line," he laughed.

Speaking of Jason Isringhausen, he continues to demonstrate veteran leadership in ways that most never see. Though he didn't want to talk about it, on the night off Tuesday, Izzy hosted the entire bullpen for an evening out. This "Bullpen Dinner" even included the catchers, one of whom, Gary Bennett, is also a first-time Cardinal. Thompson was clearly impressed by Izzy's action and called it "important for bonding" that part of the team.

Who knows? Maybe at some point down the road, Brad Thompson will be the one hosting a Bullpen Banquet. But in the meantime, here in 2006, he is most happy to gel with his new teammates and continue to pitch effectively in the major leagues.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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