- - Tuesday, June 6, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The crowd at Southern Maryland Blue Crabs games at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, Maryland, is a little louder than normal, a little more boisterous when former Washington Nationals pitching prospect Daryl Thompson is on the mound — the hometown hero.

“He brings a lot of excitement to the ballpark with the fans that come out to see him pitch, family and friends,” said John Harris, Blue Crabs manager.

It’s the crowd that grew up watching him pitch in Charles County Little League, and at La Plata High School, just a few miles away from the Atlantic League ballpark — which may be a long distance from the major leagues, but Thompson has pitched his way into a career that is particularly unique to independent league baseball.

For six seasons now, Thompson has pitched minor league baseball for his hometown team.

“It’s almost too good to be true to come here and feel like I’m playing right in my backyard,” Thompson said. “It’s not the big leagues, but being able to come out and play for my hometown is special, like I used to in high school.”

This is something that couldn’t have happened with Thompson when, after being drafted in the eighth round by the Montreal Expos in 2003, he pitched in the Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, Minnesota Twins and New York Mets organizations. Those stops in towns like Savannah and Dayton and Louisville and Rochester were all with affiliated minor league teams, in which the major league organizations dictate the rosters.

One of the beauties of Atlantic League baseball, the independent league the Blue Crabs have played in for 10 seasons now, is that they are just as they sound — independent. The franchise itself decides who is on the roster, and for six seasons now, the Blue Crabs have signed Thompson to play in his backyard.

“Having Daryl Thompson be such an integral part of our organization for six seasons now is incredibly rare in any sport,” Blue Crabs general manager Courtney Knichel said. “It’s a special and unique trait that the Atlantic League presents, and Daryl’s commitment to the organization and his hometown is unrivaled.

“When Daryl is pitching at home, there is always an extra “pop” from the crowd when his name is announced, it’s a neat moment,” Knichel said. “He has a great following of friends, family, old coaches, teachers, and others.”

Thompson is not just the local attraction, though. The Blue Crabs have two other local players on their roster — pitcher Jesse Beal and infielder Michael Snyder, both of whom played high school ball in Northern Virginia. Thompson has been one of the Blue Crabs’ best starters, with a 34-32 record and a 3.96 ERA in 104 appearances — 98 starts — and 5981/3 innings pitched. And this year, at the age of 31, he may be at the top of his game. He is 3-3, leading the staff with 52 strikeouts in 10 starts, the latest an impressive nine-inning, 10-strikeout performance, allowing just two runs, in a 5-2 loss to New Britain. He has a major league curveball.

Daryl can pitch,” Harris said. “He works hard, and is a pleasure to be around, a first class guy and a great team leader.”

“This year is probably the best I’ve felt in three or four years,” said Thompson, who has also pitched in winter ball in Venezuela and Mexico for the past five seasons.

That’s a long way from the Savannah, Georgia, Sand Gnats in 2005, where Thompson, moving up through the Nationals organization, suffered a torn labrum — that was first misdiagnosed by the circus that was the Jim Bowden-led front office.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I felt a little something, it was aching and aching. I had to fly to D.C. to see the team doctor for the Nationals. He told me I probably strained it or something, gave me a cortisone shot, flew me back to Georgia. But It never got better. Then they sent me to Dr. (Tim) Kremchek in Cincinnati, who saw I had a torn labrum. They reconstructed it.

“Dr. Kremchek (the Reds team doctor) said from the looks of it I would come back stronger, and the next year I was traded to Cincinnati,” Thompson said. “I guess that was part of the reason I was traded.

Thompson, who played with Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and other well-known Nationals while he was in the minor league system, was traded in July 2006 to the Reds in the deal that also sent pitchers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski and infielders Royce Clayton and Brendan Harris in return for Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wagner. Two years later, Thompson was making his major league debut — at Yankee Stadium.

“That was great,” Thompson said. “It was my first time being at Yankee Stadium, and the first time for a lot of my family and friends as well who came up to see me pitch.”

Thompson pitched well in his debut, allowing no runs while striking out two, walking four and allowing four hits over five innings. But he struggled with arm problems on and off after that. “I had bursitis in my shoulder,” he said. “In 2010 I had arm troubles and I was thinking about retiring. My grandfather had just passed away, my shoulder wasn’t feeling right, I was just taken off the 40 man roster. I kept throwing through the pain. By the time Instructional League started, the Reds had just signed Aroldis Chapman, and he didn’t want to go to the Arizona Fall League, so they asked me if I wanted to go. I said yes, and that is where to me I started feeling better and throwing good. I got back on the 40 man roster in 2011.

“I didn’t get called up, and took it kind of hard,” Thompson said. “I signed with the Twins. I felt I could have a fresh start somewhere else, but it didn’t work out.”

In four major league appearances, Thompson went 0-3, giving up 16 runs in 171/3 innings from 2008 to 2011. Then he found a home at home — the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, just 10 minutes from his house.

“When I first came back here, it brought back a lot of memories,” Thompson said. “When I pitch at home now, it’s like something special happens to me. People I know come out and see me pitch. Independent baseball, you have more leeway in this league, and it gives me a chance to pitch for my hometown. And the Blue Crabs have accepted me with open arms from day one. I don’t take this for granted. We have a really good team and we’ve been playing good baseball lately, and that makes it that much better.”

Still, while he enjoys being the hometown star, Thompson’s sights are still set on someday getting another major league opportunity — like so many players who spend some time in the Atlantic League and then get the call. More than 40 percent of the players in the league have major league service time, with an average of more than 50 players a season signing with major league organizations.

“Someone could call me tomorrow,” Thompson said. “I could keep getting better and better and be in the big leagues by the end of the year. I feel like I could help some organization.”

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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