Next in line? For Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin's promotion an ‘extra boost'


ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The starting rotation at Triple A Lehigh Valley looks a lot different than it did just five weeks ago. For nearly two months, the IronPigs' staff was led by Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Mark Appel, a trio of right-handers who spent time in big-league spring training and looked close to debuting in The Show.

Eflin graduated to the majors, where he's made four starts. Appel is out for the season after undergoing elbow surgery Wednesday. Thompson is the last one left.

But if Thompson, one of five prospects acquired from the Rangers in last summer's Cole Hamels trade, keeps pitching the way he has lately, his promotion could be next.

"I was extremely happy for him," Thompson said Wednesday when asked if Eflin's call-up made him realize he might be next in line. 

"For me, seeing the Phillies are actually — especially this early in the season — willing to go get a young guy that's not on the 40-man roster and give him a chance ... not that I need any more incentive to go out and work harder, but seeing that, it gives you a little extra boost."

Thompson has needed no extra boost lately. He's had a terrific month of June, going 3-0 with a 0.76 ERA and .211 opponents' batting average. He's allowed three earned runs in his last 35⅓ innings to lower his season ERA from 4.23 to 2.88.

Like teammate Nick Williams (see story), also a part of the Hamels trade, Thompson got off to a slow start this season after dominating last summer at Double A Reading. Thompson blamed it on poor mechanics that led to misses over the plate.

"I was putting my body into bad positions to try to make pitches, and against some of these veteran, experienced hitters, they were taking advantage of 2-0, poorly located fastballs or hanging breaking balls late in counts," Thompson said. "That doesn't play here and that definitely doesn't play in Philly either."

Now, Thompson is locked in and locating all of his pitches, mostly utilizing his sinker and slider. Both look like major-league ready pitches. Thompson also has a four-seam fastball and curveball, but it's the sinker-slider combo that has generated so many groundballs lately.

Thompson has induced 49 groundballs in last four starts. That's the pitcher he's become. In 22 starts in the Phillies' system, Thompson's groundball rate is just a hair under 50 percent. 

It's natural when looking at Thompson's stats to wonder where the strikeouts have gone. When the Phillies acquired Thompson, he had 330 strikeouts in 329 minor-league innings. But in 135⅔ innings with Reading and Lehigh Valley, he's struck out just 97 batters, or 6.4 per nine innings.

"More than anything, I think I'm executing some pitches early in counts, which might be taking away from the strikeouts a little bit but I'm getting more double plays, more groundball heavy, which is good," Thompson said. "I think as the season goes on, hopefully with a little bit better execution later in counts the strikeouts will come. But I'm extremely happy with how many groundballs I'm getting.

"Very rarely do I like go out and try to get a groundball. Usually you're talking about generating weak contact, not necessarily a groundball. I think it's just me being good mechanically and being able to locate down in the zone."

Thompson says he can still alter his approach in clear strikeout situations. That's important, and it's something the Phillies wanted to see Eflin improve upon in the minors this season after Eflin struck out just 4.7 batters per nine innings last year. 

"Sometimes in strikeout counts, maybe go four-seam heavy and the velocity is gonna go up a little bit," Thompson said. "I think the mindset (in strikeout situations) is just be a little bit more aggressive with all your pitches, every pitch you're trying to make a swing-and-miss pitch or really trying to dot a hard four-seamer away. So the mindset kind of changes a little bit, and I think that spills into the velocity and everything goes up with it."

Thompson was billed as a hard thrower when the Phillies acquired him from the Rangers. He was billed as a hard thrower when the Rangers acquired him from the Tigers the year before for reliever Joakim Soria. But these days, you'll see more 90-92 mph pitches from Thompson than 94. 

Throwing 90 to 92 might not get Thompson national attention or praise from outlets that rank minor-leaguers, but it's made him more effective. You can't argue with results. You can't argue with the 2.52 ERA Thompson has since joining the Phils' system.

"One of the big things is, (earlier in my career), I tried to go out and throw harder, faster, better, stronger," Thompson said. "But I think my game is more suited to every now and then easing off the gas pedal and let the ball sink, use my breaking ball. I got too wrapped up in trying to be a big velocity guy."

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