MILWAUKEE – When it became apparent late in spring training that Ian Thomas had pitched well enough to earn a spot on the opening-day roster, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was asked about the lanky reliever, who’ll be 27 in April yet has never pitched above Double-A.
“He’s left-handed. Had some quality outings. I’m waiting for the feds to come in and say ‘Hey, this guy is in the witness relocation program, we need to get him back,’” Gonzalez said, referring to Thomas from-out-of-nowehere background. “I’m just dumbfounded, because he’s got weapons.”
Thomas wasn’t in the witness-protection program but might as well have been. He spent a few years plying his trade in Canada for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, an unaffiliated team in the independent Northern League when he pitched for them in 2009-2010, and part of the breakaway American Association – another independent league — in 2011.
Minor league affiliates of major league teams can have it rough sometimes with bus rides of several hours or longer. But that’s the lap of luxury compared to the 17-hour bus trip – yes, 17 hours one way – that Thomas’ Winnipeg team, the only Canadian team in its league, would make for a series in Indiana against the Gary SouthShort RailCats.
“Ruthless,” is how Thomas described it. “We would play a couple of series, go out to Gary and then come back and play in St. Paul on the way back.”
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Thomas stands 6 feet 5, so it was particularly challenging to find a comfortable spot on a crowded bus, where players sat two-to-a-row, filling every seat. The Norfolk, Va., native would often carry a mat on the trip so he could lay it down on the floor and sleep while at least being a little stretched out.
“They have two buses in Triple-A, from what I’ve been told,” Thomas said, comparing the independent-league life to the highest-level of minor league affiliated ball. “I haven’t been there, but that’s what they say. You get your own row and it’s just more comfortable and easy traveling.”
Thomas went undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University, and a couple of months later got a call from a Winnipeg team official. In his second season in Canada he carved a 1.64 ERA in 34 appearances, with 60 strikeouts (20 walks) in 55 innings.
He spent one more season there, striking out 72 in 57-1/3 innings in 2011, before figuring he needed to get back to the United States if he was to have much chance of catching a scout’s eye and getting a shot at an affiliated league.
He pitched in seven games for York in the independent Atlantic League in 2012 before signing with the Braves in late May. He was sent to low Class-A Rome at age 25, several years or more older than most players in that league.
After posting a 3.15 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 45-2/3 innings at Rome, Thomas was moved last season to Double-A Mississippi, where he really opened eyes. Relying on a fastball that’s improved significantly as he’s gotten older, and a sharp curveball he honed since signing with the Braves, Thomas posted a 2.76 ERA in 39 games at Mississippi including 13 starts, and piled up 123 strikeouts with 37 walks in 104-1/3 innings.
He got a non-roster invitation to spring training and outpitched a couple of other lefty bullpen candidates, allowing three runs, seven hits and five walks with 13 strikeouts in 10-1/3 innings.
“It’s very surreal,” he said late in spring training, about the possibility of making the major league team.
Thomas was named to the 25-man roster on Saturday. Perhaps no one appreciated making an opening day roster more than the big lefty from Norfolk by way of Winnipeg.
“Adversity, being at the bottom, working my way up to the top,” he said. “It’s a different path, you know? I got to skip a couple of levels in affiliated (leagues). But at the end of the day, I’m just happy to be here.”