Justin Thomas is living the dream.
The 28-year-old, 6-foot-3, 220 pound left-handed pitcher has made his first opening day roster in his seventh year of professional baseball with the Boston Red Sox.
Thomas was a free agent this offseason and had several offers on the table. After talking with his agent they determined Boston offered the best opportunity to stick in the big leagues because of their lack of left-handed pitching.
“It’s pretty cool to be with an organization with so much history. Tomorrow is our home opener,” Thomas said last week. “I’m looking forward to that. You hear about it. We have some of the greatest fans in baseball. I’m interested to see how that goes.”
Boston started the year on a long road trip and struggled as a team, but Thomas has gotten off to a good start. He’s appeared in three games, pitching 2.2 innings allowing three hits, one run and striking out two. He does not have a decision yet, but a 3.38 ERA.
“I just hope to have a little more success than I’ve had in the past. Right now I’m going to attack hitters and show I belong here. That’s all I can do is let it hang out and show I belong. There are a lot of things to think about but you got to black that out and go in there and do the job you’re given,” says Thomas.
Thomas features a 94 mile-per-hour fastball, a change-up and slider. His change-up is his out pitch and he’s worked hard on it this offseason.
“Now I feel like I have a better idea. I have better fastball control. If you can expand the zone it makes a big difference. I’m able to throw it to both sides of the plate. I can attack hitters. Once I’m ahead I can use my other pitches to put them away. That’s the biggest thing to the big leagues is being able to command your fastball at any time in the count,” Says Thomas.
Thomas, who now lives in Dalton, Ohio with his wife Teresa, has spent the last three winters playing in professional leagues in Venezuela and Puerto Rico in addition to the normal major and minor league seasons. This winter a perfectly-timed baby daughter, Ella Marie, arrived during Thomas’s only break in November.
“We were able to have her in the offseason so I was able to spend a month with her before winter ball,” says the proud father.
Winter ball has been hard at times on Thomas and his family, but crucial to his success.
“There are a lot of major league players there. The competition is very intense. We drew 20,000 to 30,000 people for the playoffs. We live in a hotel that’s pretty nice and convenient. They have a couple stores and restaurants on site, so we don’t leave there much. We are transported to and from the stadium.
“The language barrier can be tough. I’ve picked up a lot of Spanish over the year and that makes it easier for me. When spring training came I was ready to go. I didn’t need to use spring training to get my arm in shape. I think that helped me to make the club,” says Thomas.
From 2005-08 Thomas was used primarily as a starter, mostly in the minors. He started 70 games with the Seattle Mariners organization going 30-29. He saw his first big league action in 2008 with the Mariners going 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in eight games.
In 2008, Thomas began his move to the bullpen. He struggled at first but put together great years in 2010 and 2011.
“Seattle felt the bullpen was the best fit for me and I agree. It’s something I’ve taken to. I enjoy doing it. In 2008, I was learning how to take care of my arm, learning how many pitches it takes to get ready. By 2010, I had it figured out,” says Thomas.
In 2010, in 40 games with Triple A Indianapolis, Thomas went 5-0 with a 2.48 ERA saving four out of five opportunities. He got his second taste of the big leagues with a late season call up with the Pittsburg Pirates, going 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA in 12 games.
“I kind of figured out my routine and my numbers showed that. I enjoy being on the field every day. I like the fact that I know I can be in the game at any point and time. It keeps you on your toes,” says Thomas.
In 2011 he pitched 63 games with Indianapolis going 8-2 with a 3.89 ERA and saving three out of five opportunities.
On the long road to success he cites two major influences, Indianapolis manager Dean Trainer and 42-year St. Louis Cardinal and World Series champ Arthur Rhodes.
From 2007-09, Thomas lived in Peoria, Arizona where the Mariners spring training is and met the left-handed legend Rhodes, who took young Thomas under his wing. Many may not have heard of Rhodes, but he’s played 21 years in the majors and pitched 1,187.2 innings in 900 games for six teams, predominately as a reliever. His career record was 87-70 with a 4.08 ERA and he was rated as one of the top 10 left-handed relievers of all time.
“He’s somebody I talk with. He’s been doing what I do for 20 years. Whenever I see him, I pick his brain and talk about getting left-handers out,” says Thomas.
Thomas still has an option left on his contract, which means the Red Sox can send him to Triple A Pawtucket and not lose him to another club. All of the other Red Sox pitchers are out of options and would have to go through waivers to be sent down.
“It’s not the most glamorous job in baseball, but every team needs one. Sometimes you warm up a couple days in a row and don’t get in. Sometimes you pitch back-to-back. You just got to take care of your arm and be ready to go,” says Thomas.