Justin Thomas is in a difficult position.
He's not a starting pitcher for the Pacific Coast League's Tacoma Rainiers, the Seattle Mariners' Triple-A affiliate. He's really not a closer, either. He has perhaps the most underappreciated job in baseball - set-up man.
"I'm more of a seventh- or eighth-inning guy," said Thomas, 25, a 2002 Clay graduate. "We don't really have specific roles. I'm used sometimes in situations late in the game or kind of like in a set-up position. I did have some saves and I've been in some save situations, but we have a guy (Randy Messenger) who is pretty much the main closer."
Thomas, a 6-3, 215-pound left-hander, has had his ups and downs this season. He had a solid April followed by a shaky performance in May, but he's beginning to turn things around.
Through June 23, Thomas was 0-2 with a 6.11 ERA. He had pitched in 25 games with four saves in 28 innings. Thomas had allowed 22 runs (19 earned) and given up one home run and 22 walks, with 22 strikeouts.
"I started out my first 10 appearances in April and only gave up one earned run, and I was throwing the ball real good," Thomas said. "The weather was cold, which favored the pitching. I started working on a couple of different mechanical things with my pitching coach. As a bullpen guy, it's kind of hard to to work on stuff during games.
"I had a couple rough outings and I'm coming back pretty good. It was just kind of a work in progress in May. I took my lumps, but I think it will help me in the long run. I'm working on my mechanics and it will help me stay more consistent and help me keep my command around the zone a lot more."
Thomas, who lives with his wife, Theresa, in the Seattle suburb of Renton, Wash., said his fastball is topping out at 91-92 miles per hour. He is also throwing a slider and change-up in the 80 mph range, and he began working on throwing a curve-ball this season.
Thomas spent the last part of the 2008 Triple-A regular season with Tacoma before getting his first call-up to the big leagues on Sept. 1. He made eight appearances with the Mariners and was 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA.
He said his quickest route back to the majors is to make sure he gets the best of left-handed hitters.
"At this level it's kind of more about getting your work in and getting in situations you would possibly be in at the major league level," Thomas said. "A lot of times I'll come in as the second guy out of the bullpen with left-handed hitters coming up. At the major league level, I would be used in a left-handed hitting situations. They like to get me into those situations. I might get into the seventh or eighth inning against two left-handers or a switch-hitter. I face a lot of left-handed hitters."
Thomas has a 1.80 ERA against left-handed hitters this season, and he has an 8.50 ERA against right-handers. His consistency has improved over the last month.
"I was working on mechanical changes, and when doing that I had trouble throwing strikes," Thomas said. "I had a bunch of walks in May. I made changes in May and now the changes are starting to show. My last four or five appearances I haven't given up a run, so those changes are starting to come through. Just some small things with my head and my hands, trying to keep them more quiet and in line so my mechanics can be a little more repeatable."
Through Tuesday the Rainiers were 35-36, five games behind North Division-leading Colorado Springs. Thomas said he knows he can get called up to the majors at any time.
"I'm in a good spot being on a 40-man roster," he said. "What's tough is that the Mariners have the best bullpen in all of major league baseball this year. If I can continue to throw well and they want a lefty in the bullpen, or there is an injury, hopefully I can get called up. Things have to be in your favor.
"Hopefully I can get called up in September when the roster expands. I just have to get my numbers down and my walks down so I can get to that next level."