By Noah Allison–
When junior pitcher Jeff Thompson took the mound against the University of Southern Florida in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge it was fresh off of a season opening loss to Indiana University. It was the first start of his junior season after a sophomore year in which he was 9-4 and earned himself second team All-Big-East accolades. The only way he could respond in the teams early stumble was by performing at a personal best, striking out 12 of the USF Bulls that stepped up to the plate against him.
The Saturday night starter for the Cardinal’s pitching staff is a six-foot-six, 250-pound righty from Greenville, Indiana. He comes into his junior season as an integral part of the No. 4 ranked baseball team in the country. His sophomore year he had a 4.00 ERA with 73 strikeouts.
In that opening game against USF, Thompson pitched five shut out innings and gave up four hits. His 12-strikeout performance set a new Big East/Big Ten Challenge record surpassing the previous record of 11 set by Connecticut’s Matt Barnes.
Thus far, Thompson is 5-0 as a starter, hasn’t given up a run in his past three starts and has an incredible 0.46 ERA. He has only given up two earned runs all season and is proving to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the country.
His growth has come in part from spending his summer at the Cape Cod Baseball League, the premier college development league in the nation. He and several teammates played in the Cape Cod League this summer, playing with and competing against the future stars of the MLB.
“Playing over the summer up in the Cape Cod League, there is just a lot of great competition from all over the nation. I really learned a lot there from facing great hitters and playing with great pitchers,” Thompson said. “I came back here and had a good fall and came out and got a big lead early against South Florida and I was just going out there and having fun.”
Although his baseball skills were honed across the river in Indiana, Thompson is originally from Louisville. The chance to play in front of his family was a major factor in Thompson taking his talents back to his first home.
“I started in t-ball when I was probably five years old and I have just been playing baseball every summer up since then,” Thompson said. “I was born here in Louisville and I moved to Indiana when I was probably five or six. I lived up there and went to high school there but all my family is still here in Louisville. I’ve been a Cards fan my whole life and grew up wearing red and black and just cheering on Louisville sports.”
Thompson completes the Cardinals’ weekend pitching staff that consists of the Friday starter junior Chad Green and Sunday starter sophomore Jared Ruxer.
“I started pitching when I was around 11 years old, it was just one of those things where I just got up there and was able to throw hard and get guys out so I just stuck with it,” Thompson said. “I was never huge for my age, I was always one of the taller guys but I just kept growing when everybody stopped growing, kind of lucked out I guess.”
Either Thompson lucked out or U of L did, either way both are happy to have each other. Thompson is a giant on the mound, his six-foot-six long stature and ability to throw the ball at deadly speeds makes him quite the obstacle for opposing hitters to overcome. But after pitching most of his life Thompson understands the responsibilities and the accountability that comes with being the man on the mound.
“I wouldn’t really call it pressure because it’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid, but it’s a great feeling. I guess it’s sort of like being a point guard or the quarterback because the ball is in your hand on every play. With that responsibility there is a lot of pressure I guess you could say, because if you are messing up then it makes your team look bad and the outcome is probably going to be a loss if you are having a bad game,” Thompson said.
In high school Thompson focused on football in the fall, playing tight end and defensive tackle.
“I was 6-6 and about 20 pounds heavier when I got here, that first summer I lost about 20 pounds really quick, but yeah one of my first loves was football. I was getting recruited to play football too but I saw my possibilities to grow a lot higher playing baseball then playing football and I just felt like this was the right fit for me to come here and play for Louisville and Coach Dan McDonnell. The decision is helping my talent blossom and raise the ceiling very high,” Thompson said.
With two years of collegiate play under his belt Thompson’s ceiling has raised as he has a deadly arsenal of pitches with a fastball that has topped out at 92mph.
“I’m throwing three different pitches, a fastball, a change up and my slider. Last year I just threw a fastball and slider and worked on my change up this summer to add to my repertoire,” Thompson said. “My slider is the best pitch that I throw, it’s just one of those things that I’ve been able to throw since my sophomore year of high school and it’s been probably my best pitch. It’s been able to get me out of a lot of jams and get a lot of guys out.”
Thompson fills one of many important roles the Cardinals have in their championship-quality baseball team.
A team this talented and this experienced holds high standards for itself and knows that the grind of the season is only a preparation process for the post season. For Thompson, the time is now to hone his craft and do all he can to fulfill the expectations of greatness at Louisville.
“I really don’t have too many personal goals, I just want to be consistent, a good pitcher and to perfect every pitch that I have with the fastball, change up and the slider,” Thompson said. “Before I leave I really want to win a championship in Omaha and hopefully do everything that I can for this team to help us get there.”
The University of Louisville baseball team plays again on Tuesday, March 26 against Indiana University. The away game, located in Bloomington, Indiana, will take place at 7 p.m.
Photo by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal