For Justin Thomas, a demotion last Friday meant a number of drawbacks, including the elimination of luxurious travel accommodations on his way to work.
But unlike other times this year, Thomas can relax during those uncomfortable late night bus trips to and from minor league cities and those - gulp - coach flights, knowing his being optioned last week from the Pittsburgh Pirates to their Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis was not necessarily performance driven.
Thomas, an Oregon native who spent his freshman and sophomore years at Cardinal Stritch before wrapping up his high school career in 2002 at Clay, has been in the big leagues twice this year. His shorter stint was much sweeter.
In four relief appearances from Aug. 1 through Thursday, the 6-foot-3 lefty surrendered zero runs over 32/3 innings, a steady improvement from a lengthier and more forgettable audition with the Pirates earlier this summer.
"I was happy with the way I threw the ball these last four appearances," Thomas, 26, told The Blade by phone a day after he received word of the bad news. "Hopefully, it's something to build on, and hopefully it's something management and coaches keep in the back of their minds when it comes to calling somebody up when September rolls around."
Thomas was the victim of a numbers game, though he admits that same game prompted his promotion less than a week earlier. When the Pirates claimed veteran pitcher Chan Ho Park off waivers last week, Thomas was aware that to make room on its 25-man roster, Pittsburgh was going to jettison one of its guys to Indianapolis. Because Thomas had minor league options remaining - meaning, unlike some others on the team, he could be sent down instead of being outright released by the organization - he was aware of his appeal.
"I got called into the manager's [John Russell] office, and when that happens you kind of know what's going on," Thomas said. "We had a good little talk about how I've been throwing the ball lately. He said, sometimes it's just a numbers game. When you have options left, sometimes you get sent down."
A day earlier, Thomas was instrumental in a 5-1 win over Colorado. With two runners on base and one out in the eighth inning, Thomas was summoned to the mound, and though he allowed an inherited run on a base hit, he also retired two of Colorado's best hitters, Carlos Gonzalez and Jason Giambi.
Thomas didn't feel as good about himself the last time he was demoted. In three relief appearances from June 24 to July 12, he was smacked around for seven hits and six earned runs in five combined innings. It was his first chance to wear a big league uniform since his debut in 2008 when, during an eight-game stay as a member of the Seattle Mariners, he worked four innings, allowing three runs.
Entering last night's game against Norfolk, Thomas had not appeared in a game since re-joining Indianapolis (58-59 record) on Sunday. Overall, Thomas has been brutal this year on opposing Triple A batters, recording 38 strikeouts in 41 innings and posting a 2.63 ERA. He is 3-0 - one of those wins came April 18 against the Mud Hens - with four saves and boasts a blistering WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) of 0.80, tops on the team.
Prior to being drafted by Seattle in the fourth round of the 2005 amateur draft, Thomas was a standout pitcher at Youngstown State University. It was there that he met his wife, Theresa, whom travels from city to city - big league or otherwise - to watch her husband play. The couple owns a home in Dalton, Ohio, which is located in the shadows of Massillon.
This past October, Pittsburgh selected Thomas off waivers, meaning he was joining an organization whose MLB club had not won more than half of its games in any season since 1992. For Thomas and his aspirations of becoming a fixture in the big leagues, Pittsburgh's futility isn't necessarily a bad thing. His initial promotion to the Pirates came only after they shipped away three relief pitchers at the trading deadline. Thomas' situation going forward may still be precarious as his minor league options will continue through the end of next season should he remain on the roster.
It seems promising, though, that on Sept. 1 Thomas could again join the Pirates as MLB clubs are permitted to expand their rosters to 40 on that date. In the meantime, Thomas can only do what he's been doing all year - bolstering his resume in the minor leagues.
"If they need somebody to come up at the end of August, or the first of September, hopefully I'm that guy," Thomas said.
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