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May 2, 2013

INTIMIDATING CARDINAL: Former FC product Thompson has been force on mound in 2013

Junior posts at 7-1 record this season

LOUISVILLE —  When Jeff Thompson was a standout pitcher at Floyd Central High School, he was an intimidating presence on the mound for opposing batters.

That has continued at the University of Louisville.

Thompson is having the best season of his Cardinals’ career in 2013. The 6-foot-6 junior right-hander, who still has the powerful fastball and nasty slider from his Highlander days, has a 7-1 record this season. His earned-run average is an impressive 1.83 with a Big East Conference-leading 71 strikeouts and 23 walks.

Thompson’s ERA ranks third in the Big East in wins, ERA and opposing batting average (.181). He has been named Big East Pitcher of the Week twice during the 2013 campaign.

But Thompson could care less about the personal accolades. All he wants to do is help the Cardinals (34-10, 11-4 Big East), who are currently ranked 11th in three different national polls, win games.

“I’m more into just trying to get wins and not some kind of award like that. As long as I get a win that week, I’m satisfied with that,” Thompson said during a recent interview at Jim Patterson Stadium, U of L’s home ballpark. “I’m not trying to come out here and set some kind of record. I’m just trying to get through the sixth inning with a lead and hand it over to that bullpen we have, which is full of great arms. I’m just trying to do my job.”

Thompson was nearly unstoppable during one point of the season. He compiled a career-long streak of 28 shutout innings from March 9-29. During that stretch, he allowed just 12 hits and eight walks while striking out 21 batters.

“To have a streak like that, you have to be in command of all your pitches,” Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams said. “He used three pitches for strikes and he had command of all of them. He was pitching down in the strike zone and making great pitches. He was making big pitches whenever he was in a trouble spot, and obviously we played good defense behind him.

“Whenever you are doing something like that as a pitcher, you’re doing a lot of things right.”

Thompson’s main focus during the scoreless streak was to throw strikes. Plus he complimented his defense for its stellar play behind him during that stretch.

“I was just trying to fill up the [strike] zone,” Thompson said about the scoreless streak. “It’s the same thing I try to do every time I go out. The guys behind me are playing great defense and when they put the ball in play, it’s usually going to be an out.”

Thompson says he has changed a lot from his days at Floyd Central. He has gotten stronger because of U of L’s weightlifting program and is in better shape thanks to an intense conditioning regimen.

“The shape that I’m in now is 100 times better than I was in high school,” Thompson said. “I’ve been in the weight room for three years now, and I’ve made a big jump physically.”

Williams says Thompson’s workout routine has given him more stamina on the mound.

“One of the things I’m most proud of him this year is that his stuff has been holding better later in the game,” Williams said. “During the first couple of years, he might start to fizzle out a little bit in the middle innings. But now, he’s able to hold his stuff and been very consistent with that late in the game.

“He takes good care of himself. He does a good job with his conditioning and weightlifting. Obviously, that’s helped him make more of an impact as a starter for us.”

Along with getting physically tougher, Thompson has worked on his mental toughness as well. He says at the NCAA Division I level, each player has to be mentally sharp every game in order to come out on top.

“With the competition you play here, you’ve got to be on every game. If not, you’re going to be exposed. I work on hitting spots because with every pitch you’ve got to be consistent,” Thompson said. “From top to bottom in most of the lineups we play, they can all hit. They all can usually hit for power or they’ve got good speed. You’ve got to be on top of your game and know what that guy is capable of doing. You’ve got to pitch to your strengths.”

Thompson has added a new pitch to his repertoire this season in a change-up. He has been using the pitch more this season to go along with his two- and four-seam fastballs and his slider.

“His change-up was a work in progress for a couple of years,” Williams said. “But this year has been different. He’s been able to use it more in games. He can throw it now for strikes. He has better command and better feel of it unlike in the past. Now, it’s a usable pitch for him when he needs to go to it.”

The Cardinals’ goals are simple this season — win a Big East championship and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Those goals have been established within the program ever since U of L manager Dan McDonnell took over the Cardinals in 2007. McDonnell has guided U of L to the NCAA tournament five times and helped the Cards reach the College World Series in 2007.

Thompson hopes he and his teammates can continue that success in 2013.

“The goal every year is to win the Big East Conference and just be competitive nationally and try to get into the [NCAA] tournament and make a run every year,” Thompson said. “That’s one of the reasons why I chose to come here just because of the history of the program since Coach Mac has been here. We’ve got a lot of talent on the field, and we’re just hoping to make a run in the playoffs and continue to finish the season out strong.”

When his college career is over, Thompson hopes to play professional baseball and possibly make it to the major leagues. But he knows he has a lot of work to do to make that dream a reality.

“That’s definitely a dream of any kid who plays baseball,” Thompson said. “But that’s faraway down the road, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work and effort. It would be a dream come true if it happens.”

Williams says Thompson has a lot of qualities that would attract professional teams.

“If you’re a pro scout, obviously he’s got a lot of things that jump off the page at you immediately when you look at his physicality and his size and having a good arm,” Williams said. “Jeff has been durable. He’s been very durable for us and he recovers well. His stuff has gotten a little bit better every year.”

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