Connor Thomas’ memories of his first semester at Georgia Tech evoke familiarity – if not sweat-inducing shakes – for virtually anyone who has ever been enrolled at the institute whose graduates claim with pride that “I got out.”
In 2016, Thomas arrived from Tift County with plans to be a starting pitcher and a mechanical engineer. His first term included Calculus II and an introductory chemistry class. About halfway through the semester, he realized he was in major trouble and told his calculus professor the extent of his knowledge of Calculus I, which he’d taken in a dual-enrollment program at a junior college while in high school.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you’re in Calculus II and only know half of our Calculus I class,’” Thomas said. “He said, ‘You’re going to do bad.’”
Needing to somehow salvage the semester to be eligible for his freshman season, Thomas tried to triage his classes. He dropped a sociology class and simply gave up on calculus as a lost cause so he could devote more time to saving himself in chemistry.
“I still remember my freshman year, walking into the chemistry teacher’s classroom, her telling me that she can’t do anything for me, that I was going to fail the class,” Thomas said, “and me just bursting out in tears because there went me and my freshman season, a wash.”
Thomas managed to regain his eligibility at the end of the following semester. His reward was to be the last pitcher on the mound for Tech’s final game of the season, an ACC tournament loss to Wake Forest that carried the further indignity of ensuring coach Danny Hall’s first losing season in 24 years at Tech.
“That was the icing on the crap-cake freshman year,” Thomas told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “And it just kind of wrapped it up in a bow and tie.”
Thomas’ experience at Tech has improved dramatically since then. He surrendered his engineering aspirations and is now pulling down A’s and B’s in the business school. And, armed with a sinister slider, an improving fastball and impeccable control, the country boy from Omega (population: 1,222) has become a dominating left-hander in the ACC.
On Friday, the Yellow Jackets, ranked as high as sixth nationally (D1Baseball.com), will turn to him to pitch them past Duke in their second and final pool-play game at the ACC tournament. Win, and go on to a Saturday semifinal at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Lose, and go back to Atlanta and await their assignment in the NCAA tournament, a blemish on their hopes to earn a top-eight national seed that would give them the privilege of hosting a super regional if they can advance out of the regional round.
Thomas has a little extra juice going for Friday. On top of closing out the final 2017 loss at the ACC tournament, he also was the starter and loser in Tech’s final game at the ACC tournament last year, to North Carolina.
“It adds a fire to say that the ACC tournament is not my kryptonite,” Thomas said. “I can still pitch well and show that I can pitch well. I’m excited for it.”
Thomas has shown the past two years that just about all he does is pitch well. He has been named first-team All-ACC both seasons. He led the ACC in strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.6) and fewest walks per nine innings (.93) last year and this year ranked second in ERA (2.86), strikeouts (67) and wins (seven) in league games.
“Probably the thing he (has done), he’s added some velocity each year, but he’s always been able to just throw any pitch at any time,” Hall said.
Thomas’ nastiest offering is his slider, which he has developed into a swerving, diving fiend with the aid of pitching coach Jason Howell.
“It is disgusting,” catcher Kyle McCann said. “That’s all I’ve got to say about it.”
Generously, McCann offered a few more words about the pitch, recalling the time an opposing batter took one of Thomas’ sliders and then looked back at McCann to ask him what kind of pitch Thomas had just thrown.
“He was like, I didn’t even see that,” McCann said. “I was like, Yeah. Good luck.”
Thomas has been a rock for the Jackets as their Saturday starter. He has thrown two complete-game shutouts, both times needing fewer than 97 pitches. If Friday starter Xzavion Curry, trying to return from an inflamed shoulder, can make it back for regional play next week, Tech’s hopes of making a tournament run increase significantly. Perhaps even Tech’s first College World Series appearance since 2006.
Hall said Thursday that it’s up in the air whether Curry can start in the regionals, but added that “he’s trending on the right track.” Hall is hoping to get Curry live action out of the bullpen this weekend, one more incentive for the Jackets to advance to the semis.
It’s a virtual certainty that Thomas will get selected in the major-league draft that begins June 3. He lacks ideal size (he’s 5-foot-11), but the numbers and control are hard to ignore, as well as the fact that he’s a lefty. Thomas said he has a signing-bonus number in mind that a team will need to meet for him to turn pro, but that can wait.
For now, it’s solving Duke, an assignment he’ll gladly take over calculus.
“’We’re all confident in him for (Friday) as a team,” McCann said. “I think he’s going to do a great job.”
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