NEW MARKET – Moments after piecing together his latest masterpiece from atop the mound at Rebel Park on Monday night, Darrell Thompson took the time to tidy up his workstation.
The New Market Shockers’ left-hander had just wrapped up another complete game, one in which he held Grottoes to two runs and four hits while striking out 13 to send his team to its first Rockingham County Baseball League championship series since its formation in 2004.
At 26 years old and as one of just two players with pro experience on New Market’s roster, Thompson is truly a veteran on a team made up largely of college ballplayers. No player on the squad has a better claim to seniority than Thompson, and if the Shockers have a star this season, he is it. And yet his first move after Monday’s Game 5 win over the Cardinals was to grab a rake and get the mound ready for its next occupant.
“That’s just the type of guy he is,” Shockers head coach Nolan Potts said after Monday’s game while Thompson, perhaps not quite satisfied with his first sweep of the mound, went back, rake in hand, for another go after speaking to the media about the gem he had just thrown. “I’m not gonna be able to leave here for another 30 minutes because he’s gonna go out there and do rehab stuff for his arm and rake the bullpen up.
“He makes life easier, he does,” Potts added, redirecting the conversation back to Thompson’s incredible summer in the RCBL. “Being able to pencil him in is – I can’t tell you how great that is to have.”
Thompson, to put it simply, has been incredible.
In five regular-season appearances, the former Sherando High School and Shenandoah University standout went 2-1 with a 3.64 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 37 innings. In the playoffs, he’s been nearly untouchable while posting a 0.90 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 30 innings while holding opponents to a .131 batting average. His total body of work for the Shockers this summer includes 109 strikeouts (in 67 innings) and just 14 walks, a 7.8:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Only once in nine appearances (which include eight starts) has Thompson failed to record at least 10 strikeouts, and he’s pitched at least eight innings in his last five starts, including four nine-inning performances. In his only non-start of the playoffs, Thompson threw four innings – and struck out 10 – to complete a suspended game against Elkton and send New Market into the semifinals.
“Nobody’s more important to his team than he is to us,” Potts said, “because he just makes everybody’s lives easier. He makes it look easy.”
For someone with pro experience playing in a league made up primarily of current college players or guys who weren’t ready to hang up their cleats after graduation, maybe some of it should be easy.
Thompson himself said his expectation at the start of the season was to “dominate every time I got the baseball.”
“I kind of set myself to higher standards,” said Thompson, who has played four pro seasons in the independent leagues, including two in the Frontier League in 2018 and 2019. “Coming from a professional league, I expected to have a big breakout year. It’s the kind of position I should put myself in, you know? I kind of had the mindset, not to be egotistic or cocky or anything, but I had the mindset that I’m the best pitcher in this league and I need to perform like it.”
As Thompson noted, there is so much more that goes into the type of summer he’s having. He gave credit to his defense for making plays behind him, and run support – something the Shockers have struggled to provide Thompson at times – is always important.
Dig deeper and Thompson’s summer is all the more impressive.
Thompson, who works at FASST Sports Performance Training in Winchester, spent much of his time in the months preceding the 2020 RCBL season resting and rehabbing a torn right hamstring. It was an injury he suffered twice because, wanting to see how high he could reach on a radar gun (Thompson hit 96 mph, he said), he admittedly rushed back into a full-speed pitching motion on a day in late April when his arm felt “really, really, really good.”
Only when the RCBL season was nearing its June 27 start did Thompson return to full form, though he did tweak that same hamstring in a Game 3 start against Grottoes last week but has found a way to manage the soreness and stay game-ready.
Thompson, though through an air of uncertainty, also was planning on a third pro season this summer with the Schaumburg Boomers, and he didn’t find out until June 24 that the Frontier League was canceling its 2020 season in the wake of COVID-19. Three days later, Thompson, who had been a relief pitcher in two seasons with Schaumburg, made the start in the Shockers’ opener against Elkton and went six innings and struck out 10.
Transitioning back into a starting role wasn’t too complex a change for Thompson, who said he came to realize during his preseason bullpens at FASST that he could almost effortlessly reach 88 to 90 mph on his fastball with minimal strain on his arm and maintain that form for long stretches.
Even as he’s gone back to his roots as a starter, Thompson said he attacks his pregame preparation like he would a relief role and only throws 15 warm-up pitches before an outing.
“I kind of use the first three innings through the lineup to still kind of let my arm loosen up and liven up,” Thompson said, “so my (velocity) is probably increasing throughout the game rather than decreasing like some other guys.”
Thompson said he’s also improved his approach when he gets hitters in two-strike counts, something he struggled with earlier this summer in back-to-back starts against Broadway and Grottoes. Upon analyzing his approach, he realized he was catching too much of the strike zone in those situations and has focused more on his efforts on getting hitters to expand the zone.
Thompson also harbors a competitive streak that practically renders Potts unable to remove him from the game if he gets through the seventh inning. That same competitiveness allows Thompson to deliver some of his best performances in the biggest moments, the roots of which can be traced back to his days at Shenandoah.
Displaying an impressive memory, Thompson flashed back to Shenandoah’s winner-takes-all championship game against Bridgewater in the 2014 Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament. Thompson, who had recently been named the ODAC’s Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore that season, recalled entering the game for a rare relief appearance and a chance to clinch Shenandoah’s first ODAC tournament title.
Thompson instead coughed up the lead when he gave up a two-run double on a 1-2 changeup in the eighth, and Shenandoah lost the game, 6-5. It was such a low point in Thompson’s baseball career – on his 20th birthday, no less – that he was determined never to feel that way again.
He redeemed himself the following year by firing a complete-game six-hitter in the Hornets’ 4-2 win over Virginia Wesleyan in another winner-takes-all ODAC tournament championship game, forging the big-game mentality that Thompson has showcased several times already this RCBL postseason.
“That’s given me all the load of confidence to carry on forward with my baseball career,” Thompson said of his 2015 redemption game, “so when I get put in these positions I can come out swinging and still be aggressive. I think it raises my game a little bit more.”
Thompson will likely get one more start for the Shockers this summer, either in Game 3 or Game 4 of the RCBL championship series against Broadway, depending on how the first two games of the series shake out. After that, Thompson plans to renew his pursuit of a roster spot with a major league affiliate, beginning with a private workout with a Chicago White Sox scout soon after the RCBL season is over.
“I gave indy ball the best shot I had,” said Thompson, who noted that the Frontier League has age caps in place that may prohibit his participation next year, though the league does allow teams to have a certain number of “veteran” players.
“I’m just looking for an affiliated chance. I think I’ve put in the work. I’ve shown that I can pitch well in every league that I’ve played in, and I’m just still looking for that chance.”