For all of the things that have gone wrong for the Kansas University baseball team this season, from injuries to late-inning losses and even a tie, one thing finally has started to go right.
His name is Tony Thompson and his presence in the middle of the Jayhawks’ lineup is enough to make this group believe it can win this week’s Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.
“I’m pleased with the progress he’s making,” KU coach Ritch Price said of his All-American third baseman. “His quality of at-bats are as good as they were a year ago. In the last two weeks, he’s become Tony Thompson again.”
That’s no small feat. A year after winning the conference’s Triple Crown — by leading the league with a .389 batting average, 21 home runs and 82 RBIs — Thompson missed the first seven weeks of the 2010 season after breaking his left knee cap via a foul ball off the knee. In the days that followed, he worked tirelessly to return to the lineup but has just now started to feel comfortable again.
Through 37 games Thompson is batting .324 with six home runs and 37 RBIs.
“I’m feeling great now,” the 6-foot-4 junior from Reno, Nev., said. “I feel like I’m 100 percent again, like I can contribute a little bit.”
That’s good news for the Jayhawks in more ways than one. For starters, sticking Thompson’s big bat into the middle of the order changes the way pitchers can attack KU’s lineup. In addition, now that Thompson has sharpened his eye at the plate, his chances for hits have increased each time he has stepped into the batter’s box.
“Plate discipline for sure,” said Thompson, when asked what he’s focused on most since his return. “Because if I don’t swing at bad pitches, I’m going to get better ones to hit and I can have more success.”
In many ways, the Jayhawks’ success is tied directly to Thompson’s performance. A big night by the clean-up hitter can make up for just about any deficiencies. As Price put it, “He can single-handedly win games with one swing of the bat.”
Of course, even when Thompson isn’t hitting, it could be because others are. If there’s one thing the Jayhawks (31-24-1) have shown this season, it’s that their offense has the potential to be explosive. Adding the Thompson of old to a lineup that includes Robby Price, Brian Heere, Jimmy Waters and Casey Lytle has led those in the KU dugout to believe there’s still a lot of baseball to be played this season.
“There’s no doubt,” Price said. “If he gets hot when we get to Oklahoma City, he makes everybody around him better. We went that seven weeks he was out with the three left-handed hitters, (Jimmy) Waters and Brian (Heere) and Robby (Price) tearing it up and leading our club. If Tony had been on the field, their numbers would’ve been even better.”
Of course, what Thompson’s return means to the KU lineup is only half of the story. There’s also the part about what being sidelined meant to Thompson.
“I thought one of the great comments that was made to me was by the (San Francisco) Giants scout in our area, Hugh Walker,” Price said. “He told me, ‘This is going to be good for him. The fact that he’s had to overcome an injury and fight through that and then come back with the expectations that he has on him is going to make him a better player in the long run because he’s going to have to face injuries in pro ball.’ I had never thought about it in those terms but I thought it was really interesting and I believe it’s right.”
So does Thompson. Not once did he sulk or feel sorry for himself. Not once did he take away from the team by belly-aching with a poor-me mentality. Instead, he did his best to stay positive — thanks to some help from Robby Price — and chose to focus on the mental aspect of the game while the injury heeled.
“It has definitely helped me, as a hitter especially,” Thompson said. “I was getting pitched around a little bit, even when I came back, and I’ve had to see the ball better at the plate, seeing balls that were up, seeing a lot of breaking balls. It’s been a huge development for me as a player.”
Price remembers the moment he saw the new Thompson emerge.
“I saw him turn the corner at Oklahoma State a few weeks ago,” he said. “He took a 3-2 fastball below his knees for ball four in back-to-back at-bats. The previous few weeks he swung at those pitches. I knew at that point his eye was back, he was back in the hitting zone and it was only going to be a matter of a couple of at-bats before he was back. He got it going that weekend and now he’s had three good weeks.”
With nothing more than two games guaranteed the rest of the way, Thompson and the Jayhawks are hoping that trend can continue into the postseason.
“You just need to get hot for a few games to win the Big 12 tournament,” Thompson said. “So anybody can win it, really.”
The Jayhawks, seeded seventh in this year’s conference tourney, will open the postseason at 7:30 tonight with a rematch against No. 2 Oklahoma. The Sooners (42-14, 15-10) swept the Jayhawks this weekend at Hoglund Ballpark.