(Photo courtesy of Bert Hindman/Memories Photography)
Hat slightly offset, Daryl Thompson stands tall, feet together atop the pitcher’s mound, holding the ball out in front of him in his right hand, tucked into his mitt, the glove’s fingers pointed skyward.
He breaks his hands, dropping his right foot into the rubber and his left foot behind him back toward first base and freezes, almost like a dance move. After the hitch, he kicks his left knee up under his glove hand and drives toward home plate, something he’s done more than nearly anyone who’s ever pitched in the Atlantic League.
Thompson is many things for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. At 33, he’s a veteran among veterans in the top independent professional baseball league. He’s a fan favorite, having grown up just down the road. He matriculated from La Plata High School, not four miles from Regency Furniture Stadium.
In his eighth season on the team, he’s not just the stalwart of the staff, he’s also now the pitching coach.
“When you think of the Blue Crabs, he is basically the heart and soul of the team,” said outfielder Cory Vaughn, who has played with Thompson since 2017 and said he’s never seen him have a bad day.
“He’s like the hometown hero around here.”
Despite the dual player/coach role, despite the wiry, white hairs infiltrating his jet black beard, despite a right arm that’s thrown more than 2,000 professional innings everywhere from Vermont, to Vegas, to Venezuela, he’s putting together the best season in his winding, 17-year professional career, and one of the best in league history.
Thompson will make his final home start of 2019 Sunday at Regency Furniture Stadium. He’s all but guaranteed two-thirds of the Atlantic League pitching triple crown, with his league-leading 15 wins and 151 strikeouts. But he was on pace to break the single-season strikeout record of 164 before a stomach bug sidelined him and cost him a start. He can still do it with 14 Ks over his final two outings, certainly not an impossible task considering he’s averaged just shy of six per start in the second half of the season.
He’s also fast approaching not just the career strikeout mark of 760 (he’s at 733), and has a chance at reaching the all-time wins mark of 74 (he’s got 60) and innings pitched total of 1,150.2 (Thompson is at 973.1) if he throws another season like this one next year.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch,” said Blue Crabs Manager Stan Cliburn. “It’s created a lot of electricity not only in the league but around here. Everybody when you go out there asks, ‘When does Daryl Thompson pitch again?’”
Originally drafted by the Expos in the eighth round in 2003, when he was just 17, Thompson found himself in the Washington Nationals system when the team relocated in 2005. But he was moved to the Reds organization in a multiplayer trade along with Royce Clayton and others in the deal that brought Austin Kearns to Washington.
Thompson is no longer in possession of the raw stuff that got him to the big leagues. In his Major League debut with Cincinnati in 2008, he took a no decision despite five scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium against a murderer’s row of Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Jason Giambi, as the Reds didn’t score until the seventh inning of a 6-0 victory. He would lose his next two starts and wouldn’t see the big leagues again for three more years and one ill-fated relief appearance. He threw only 17.1 innings and never earned a Major League win.
The next year, Thompson came home to Charles County to pitch for the Blue Crabs. He had stints in Triple-A and the Mexican League, but would always find his way home for at least some portion of the season and always seemed to find the most success back in Waldorf.
“In previous years I’ve come here and I’ve pitched to try to get out of here,” he told WTOP. “And those were probably my worst years.”
Thompson knows, despite his sparkling stat line this season, his 0.98 WHIP and 2.99 ERA, that there is likely no call coming this winter from a Major League organization.
“To be honest, I’m not really worried about getting picked up or anything right now, he said. “I’m just focused more on the pitching staff that I have and doing what I can for those guys.”
As the cult of velocity infiltrates training facilities and front offices, and hopefuls are signed off the street from in-stadium radar gun performances, Thompson has preached the gospel of pitching to contact, getting ahead, trusting your stuff to get easy outs. It’s what’s fueled his own transformation.
The only other former big league pitcher in his current clubhouse, one-time National Mat Latos, has had a similar reckoning this year. Despite the Trackman technology installed at every park around the league showing a decline in his spin rate — and with his pure velocity not what it once was — Latos has discovered a cutter and embraced the movement on his fastball instead of the heat.
As the Blue Crabs’ closer, he’s got a 1.13 ERA and 25 saves, good for a share of the league lead. While he’s just two years younger than Thompson, Latos said he’s benefitted from Thompson’s lead-by-example attitude as teammate and coach.
“I’ve been around a long time. There’s guys that talk a lot about doing this or doing that. He doesn’t talk about it — he just does it,” said Latos.
Thompson and Latos have formed a formidable 1-2 punch, with no need for middle relief. In 12 second-half starts this season, Thompson has gone at least seven full innings nine times, with Latos saving each of his last four victories.
“When I come in and I see Thompson on the lineup card, I’ve got one of two options,” said Latos. “Either he’s going to go complete game, or I’m getting up and getting ready for the ninth.”
Earlier this year, Thompson won 11 consecutive starts. Not 11 straight decisions, mind you. Only 12 pitchers in Major League history since 1908 have ever put together a longer streak than that and only three since 1968 — Brad Radke (1997), Johan Santana (2004) and Justin Verlander (2011) — who each won 12 straight starts.
While Cliburn compares Thompson’s approach on the mound to the great control pitchers of the game, Latos likens Thompson’s mentality to the workhorses of today’s MLB, Max Scherzer and, sure enough, Justin Verlander.
“(He’s one of) those guys that sit there and say, ‘No, you go sit down, I got this. I’ll handle what I need to handle, then I’ll give up the baseball when I’m good and ready,’” said Latos.
There’s something to be said about that attitude from a wider lens when it comes to Thompson as well. When Cliburn first offered the player/coach position to Thompson this winter, the suggestion was both humbling and disconcerting. He couldn’t help but wonder if it was a signal that his playing days were numbered.
“I did feel honored about it,” said Thompson. “But at the same time I felt like, man, do they think I’m getting too old? That it’s time for me to jump on the other side?”
Even in the Atlantic League, where the average age is 29, baseball is a young man’s game. But that perspective changes when you’re talking about a coach.
“He’s old for the league,” said Latos. “Not for the Earth.”
Every winter for the last seven years, Thompson has traveled south to play in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues. It’s a chance for another paycheck, sure, but also to keep challenging himself against players in affiliated ball, to keep improving. This last offseason his teammates included Minnesota Twins slugger Willians Astudillo and Milwaukee Brewers middle infielder Orlando Arcia.
But with broader geopolitical forces likely taking that option away from him this year, he expects to stay at home and run some clinics, but with his eyes open for anyone who will give him a chance to keep throwing.
“I could see him pitching until his arm falls off,” said Blue Crabs catcher Mike Falsetti. “He just loves the game. He’s like a little kid out there.”
Falsetti’s in his first year behind the plate in Southern Maryland. But he said the learning curve with Thompson was “nonexistent.” Even the league eliminating mound visits this year, as it serves as a live training ground for potential new MLB rules, didn’t make things difficult for the battery mates.
“With Daryl being as experienced and as knowledgeable as he is, he really doesn’t need a pitching coach out there,” said Falsetti. “There isn’t one time this whole year, if the rule was not in effect, that I would have had to go out there. I see him, I see his body language, and he’s got it under control.”
Thompson was voted the organization’s Greatest of All Time last year by the fans, all before this season and the potential records. To paraphrase another minor league legend, setting an Atlantic League career record might seem to some like a dubious honor, but it’s one that Thompson isn’t shy about, even if he thinks he might appreciate them more down the line.
“Having those milestones with my name next to it means a lot, but I think it will mean a lot more when it’s all said and done, when it’s over,” he said.
Latos was a little more blunt about Thompson’s accomplishments.
“No matter what happens at the end of this year, the man can walk out of here with his head the highest knowing that he just threw the absolute piss out of the baseball all season,” he said.
Even as Thompson has improved at an age when he’s supposed to winding down, he knows nothing lasts forever.
“Eventually it’s going to run out,” he said. “But until then, I’m going to keep going until I can’t anymore.”
In the meantime, he’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
“He’s the most energetic guy in the dugout on the days he’s not pitching and the days he’s pitching,” said Cliburn. “With his personality, and the way he is, he will never lose that. That’s why he’s going to be a good pitching coach someday.”
His teammates think he already is, but Cliburn isn’t talking about for the Atlantic League. While Thompson may never make it back to the majors or even affiliated ball as a pitcher, his manager sees a bright future for him on a coaching staff.
“There might be the Washington Nationals come calling, or the Baltimore Orioles,” said Cliburn. “What he’s done here on his resume, not only as a pitcher but as a pitching coach, speaks volumes as to what he’s done.”
That’s the goal for Thompson, eventually, whenever he can’t take the mound every fifth day anymore. It’s why he might be more proud of the work he’s done with the rest of the staff this year than anything he’s accomplished himself, knowing that the lessons he’s learned will make him a better coach next year and in the years to come.
Thompson speaks fondly of his teammates, of the improvements they’ve made, from the beginning to now — not to the end, but to the present.
“That’s the one thing I look at,” he said. “It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.”
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