As Zack Thompson began his descent from The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Friday, after he pitched in an official game for the first time in nearly a year and doled out positive impressions along the way, someone in the stands caught his attention.
A year ago, Thompson was pitching in big league Spring Training for the first time of his career -- a brief, three-inning stint -- after being selected in the first round of the 2019 Draft eight months prior. A year ago, he was bright-eyed, looking forward to his first full professional season after just a taste of the Minors to end 2019. A year ago, he was wearing a different number, 80.
Plenty changed in a year.
“A fan flagged me down,” Thompson recalled, “and said he was so excited to see 57 back out there.”
The number 57 in St. Louis last belonged to Darryl Kile, the right-hander who died in his hotel room before a game against the Cubs in June 2002. Kile’s number has been out of circulation for Cardinals players since, waiting for an appropriate instance -- and an appropriate player -- to embody what 57 means to the organization and to re-introduce it to the fanbase.
The Cards believe they have found a fitting torchbearer in their No. 5 prospect Thompson, who was alerted in the lead-up to Spring Training that the club had a new number picked out for him at his locker, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“It's a great honor,” Thompson said. “[I discovered a lot] talking with guys around the field, around the clubhouse [who] pulled me aside [who] knew DK and the legacy that he had around here -- [it was nice] just having the opportunity to learn more about him, what he meant to the [organization], what he meant to fans.”
Friday night was Thompson’s first official appearance in his new number. By the time he heard from that fan, he had just wrapped up his debut outing in the 2021 Grapefruit League slate, pitching two innings in a 7-6 loss to the Nationals. He fought for his six outs, showing a poise and capability that got him selected 19th overall out of the University of Kentucky.
Trouble started quickly for Thompson, against a crop of Nationals regulars facing his first official pitches in almost a year. He conceded a leadoff double to Carlos Tocci and a single to Trea Turner to open his night in the fifth inning. He quickly rebounded, getting Starlin Castro to ground into a double play (though a run scored) and Juan Soto to ground out to escape the inning.
Thompson took that poise into his second inning of work. After being greeted by Josh Bell with another leadoff double, he used his curveball to strike out a pair of Nats and get a third to ground out to complete his outing.
“I saw a guy that got dug in a hole early on,” said manager Mike Shildt. “Then, you got choices at that point: You can figure out a way to bear down -- and there's no guarantee when you do that, but it’s a lot better. And that's what we saw.
“I saw a guy that got in a little bit of trouble and went back and figured out, ‘Hey, man, I got to get after this thing a little bit.’ He did, but also didn't lose any composure. [He] just focused in and made pitches.”
Friday showcased the dividends for the work Thompson put in over the course of a turbulent 2020. His outlook was uncertain when Spring Training shut down last March, but he was eventually included as part of the Cardinals’ Summer Camp roster by the time baseball restarted in July.
Thompson remained at the club’s alternate training site, able to learn about himself in ways he wasn’t able to in college -- and may not have been able to do facing opposing teams in Double-A. Working with fellow prized lefty Matthew Liberatore (No. 3 prospect), he faced big league hitters for the Cards -- some coming back from injury and others working out for a chance at the Major League roster. That comfort gave him the ability to pick their brains about what he was throwing that worked ... and what didn’t.
“You're learning the way those guys approach the game,” Thompson said. “Double-A ball, you see the same team, what, 20 times a year? You don't get that in college. That was my first experience of, ‘OK, I see the same guy every week.’ [You've] got to figure out when you're getting predictable, when a guy is pitching to the scouting report and you have to get out of that groove.
“[You've] got to be unpredictable.”
The Cardinals have a clear vision for Thompson: They see him in their rotation within the next few seasons. At 23 years old, it’s likely to come in 2022 -- though both he and Liberatore are being given the chance to prove themselves this March in Florida, potentially for a midseason callup, if anything.
“As far as our young lefties [go], we're very excited,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said at the outset of camp. “... They're going to be given serious looks as they enter this camp. … These are two guys that we're very excited about, very high on -- and I hope we get to see a lot of them in this camp.”
They also see Thompson as a torch-bearer, as someone who’ll not just pitch well in the number 57 again, but someone who can honor the legacy Kile has left throughout Busch Stadium.
“It's obvious DK had a huge impact on St. Louis,” Thompson said. “I feel honored that they picked me to wear it.”