Mark Thomas was sitting in a chair in front of his locker in the Rays' clubhouse at the team's spring training facility in Port Charlotte, FL, elbows on his knees, staring intently forward. He already had his entire uniform on even though the first workout of 2012 for pitchers and catchers was still an hour away.
He seemed to be just taking it all in. This WAS big league camp after all and the 23-year-old Thomas, a native of Atlanta, Ga, was there for the first time.
He was also feeling right at home.
"I'm used to this clubhouse," said Thomas who played for the Rays' Single-A affiliate Charlotte Stone Crabs last year. "It has a different feel to it now obviously, but I'm definitely at home here."
Being in a familiar clubhouse has to be a good feeling for Thomas, who spent seven weeks this off-season playing baseball half-way around the world in Australia for the Canberra Cavalry.
The 22nd-round draft pick of the Devil Rays back in 2006, Thomas had been sent by the team to play in the Australian Baseball League to get additional playing time after having a meniscus scope done on his knee in the fall.
"I think mostly they (the Rays) just wanted me to get at-bats for the most part, because I had caught a good bit during the season and I had just gotten off knee surgery. So I think hitting was the main thing that they wanted me to focus on."
Once he got adjusted to the strange game schedule in Australia, Thomas began to get into a serious groove with the bat in the season's final weeks and was one of the league's most dangerous hitters down the stretch.
In his last 10 games for the Cavalry, Thomas was 16 for 41 with 5 home runs and 12 runs batted in, and had a ridiculous .800 slugging percentage over that span.
"I felt like I finally got into a groove as far as being able to see the ball on back-to-back days," Thomas continued. "I was on a strict schedule as far as my knee surgery. When they kind of threw me in there in my first series, I played two games out of five. Then we had ten days off. It was just hard to get going. Then I finally starting catching two, dh'ing two, and having the fifth game off. Then I was able to get in to a groove and I started to feel good and I was hitting the ball well.
The strong-armed Thomas has never had any issues defensively, owning a career .983 fielding percentage and a 39 percent caught stealing percentage in his five minor league seasons. However, despite blossoming power (25 doubles and 13 homes runs in 422 at bats in 2011), Thomas hit only .237 for the Stone Crabs last year.
If the Rays' goal was for Thomas to get some extra at bats this winter to work on his hitting, then his strong finish at the plate in Australia seemingly accomplished that.
It may have also been the catalyst for the Rays' deciding to offer him a spring training invite.
"Absolutely. I think so," said Thomas when asked if his torrid ABL finish got him to big league camp. "I don't know if it helped. I would like to think that it did. Still I'm here, so I might as well play hard and see what happens."
All of Thomas's hard work this off-season has been with the expressed goal of getting to big league camp. His nearly two months in Australia was the culmination of a long off-season, which aside from time off for his knee surgery, has seen him either playing or training for baseball since the 2011 season ended.
"I had about two months home, so I just did what I needed to do to get down here. As far as baseball shape, I felt I was in good shape, because I been down here for rehab. I had been on the field, throwing and hitting and then I went home for a month. Then I went straight to Australia for seven weeks and then came back for a month. I haven't really had enough time off to really slow down."
Not slowing down has paid off for Thomas and he now finds himself at his first big league camp.
The Rays catching situation behind Jose Molina (who is expected to see action in only about 80-90 games) is far from settled. Thomas may be a long-shot to win the job, but he nonetheless is in the mix along with fellow non-roster invites Craig Albernaz, Nevin Ashley and Chris Gimenez, as well as 40 man roster players Robinson Chirinos, Jose Lobaton and Stephen Vogt.
Thomas for his part intends to keep the momentum he built this off-season going and see what becomes of it.
"My focus is to just go out and do the best I can. I can't control what they do. I can only control what they think of me. I'm just going to play hard and see what happens."
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.